Being: Winter Semester

It rains all the time in the Rhine Valley. Dripping, foggy, penetrating damp, Tag ein Tag aus–you would take the coldest of Vermont winters over this.

At the same time, though, it makes the sun all the more beautiful. You wake up to bright clear skies one morning and skip out on an entire day of studying to walk in the city, and to find out how the stained glass windows in the churches look with sun behind them.

They look glorious, by the way.

IMG_1138

St. Stephanskirche, Mainz

It’s strange, this being in a foreign country. Most of the time it all feels normal, more or less like living at home, but then some little thing happens and the strangeness of it all is brought back to you. Sometimes you go outside in the morning and are shocked that people aren’t speaking your native language. It takes several seconds to remember where you are. You keep forgetting the small things–that lines in the supermarket move 10x faster than they do in America, that no one wants to help you in the clothing store, that you won’t be able to do any banking on Friday afternoons because the German motto is work smarter, not longer.

It’s the different conception of academia that shocks you the most, though. Your university–37,000 students, some 150 institutes–is worlds away from the tiny college you graduated from last spring. Part of it’s good–students in Germany have much more freedom, are treated like adults with the ability to plan their own time and think for themselves. But it’s the apathy that gets you.

For instance: your Herr Dr. Professor–widely published, with his own wikipedia page, applauded by the students at the end of every lecture–is teaching Hamlet. He never smiles in class, seems rather bored by the whole affair. You want to go and shake him at the end of the day and say, “This is a privilege, this! Don’t you see–you are so privileged, so lucky, so blessed to be able to teach this text, to be able to teach at all! The existence of Hamlet is a miracle. The fact that you have a job where you get to read Hamlet every day is also a miracle.”

It’s good, though, too, because you now see what you want to spend the rest of your life fighting against: apathy, boredom, this brand of tired post-modernism that sees the entire world as a deconstruction of a deconstruction of a deconstruction. You want to teach with personality, dammit, in a place where you can sit across the desk from your students and talk about beauty and art like they really matter.

Here in Germany, you have the feeling that the professors think you smile too much in class. But how can one not smile–Hamlet is Hamlet. And apathy aside, it’s good to be here. The cathedrals are still glorious.

Literature: Thomas Mann: Zauberberg and Faustus

Various thoughts on the worldviews, music, and endings of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), inspired by studying for my German Comps. Rather longer and more academic than most posts here. The quotations are from the estimable John Woods translations, with occasional edits of my own.

Zauberberg

Thomas Mann is the most unflinching of writers. His works, read from the perspective of early 20th-century Europe, are ideological, painful, inescapably overt. They are remarkable because Mann wrote at a time when it was so easy not to be these things–his was the age of surrealism, absurdism, symbol and neo-Romanticism, and many of his contemporaries were falling away from reality. In contrast, his didacticism is refreshing. He poses questions and he answers them.

Works like Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, in particular, belong to this vein. They are what my professor calls “test-tube novels”–all the fixations, terrors, questions, and beauties of a new century thrown together, the results brought under Mann’s lazer-sharp analysis. His characters critique and harangue, propose and debunk.

Der Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, implicitly and explicitly, are works that ask questions about art. What do we do with our artistic past? How do we move forward? Can we create a 20th century work of art–what should it look like? Can we find a solution to the artistic problems of the past century? The novels, I argue, offer two very different sets of answers to these questions.

~~~~~

But first, Thomas Mann and Richard Wagner–the representative artist, in Mann’s mind, of Europe’s artistic past. He located in Wagner’s operas everything that was disturbingly problematic about German Romanticism–the death-drunkenness, the beauty in perversion, the baroque-colossal aesthetics, the sympathy with the abyss. Wagner was the questionable wizard of the past century, whose vast inner landscapes were in essence sick and impure. The apotheosis of these tendencies, of course, was Tristan und Isolde–the most beautiful opera in the world, the love story that in the end did not have to do with the love of the beloved, but rather with the love of death. Wagner’s art is a superlative, Eduard Hanslick wrote. And there can be nothing beyond a superlative.

Philosophically and stylistically, then, Wagner’s was an art without a future. After so much perfection and so much Liebestod, what was left over for the artists of the 20th century?

~~~~~

This is the question that Mann takes up in Der Zauberberg–what is left over? The novel was published in 1924, almost two decades before the horrors of World War II. Here, the answer Mann suggests is inherently humanistic, forward-looking, even cautiously optimistic.

 Philosophically, he separates his hero from Wagner’s Todesrausch in the Schnee (Snow) chapter of the work,  when Hans Castorp finds himself alone in a storm in the Alps. He dreams, and in his dream Mann constructs a vision of a world that has renounced all sympathy with death, all of Wagner’s love of abyss and annihilation. Der Mensch soll um der Güte und Liebe willen dem Tod keine Herrschaft einräumen über seine Gedanken. For the sake of goodness and love shall mankind grant death no dominion over his thoughts–there, in the single italicized sentence of the entire work, Mann presents the renunciation and defeat of all of Wagner’s philosophy.

In Der Zauberberg, too, Mann offers us a (possible) stylistic paradigm of the new art, a model for the aesthetics of the 20th century: Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum, the Lied for piano and voice that so fascinates Hans later in the story. The piece has everything that Wagner’s operas lack–classicism, humanism, beauty in smallness, self-restraint, hope. The text of the song, while it deals with the possibility of self-destruction, does not end with death and Liebestod, but rather with the thoughtful return to life of the speaker. In Der Zauberberg, Mann’s description of the Lied matches almost exactly his description of the ideal artwork of the 20th century, as sketched out in a brief essay from 1911. A new classicism must come, he wrote–to the artistic future of Germany belonged a clear-headed and upwards-looking art, whose spirituality would be cool and healthy instead of drunken and bombastic.

Profound but logical, deeply-felt but never excessive, Schubert’s Lindenbaum in Der Zauberberg is thus more hopefully modern than anything by Wagner. Unlike Tristan und Isolde, the Lied transcends Romanticism to look towards a constructive future.

Of course–of course, Thomas Mann–this beautiful image is destroyed in the final pages of the novel, or at least called deeply into question. For all the forward-looking hope and resolution of Der Lindenbaum and all the heroism of the conclusions in the Schnee chapter, Hans’ own story does not end so neatly. He leaves the mountain, and, in the chaos of 1914, disappears from sight on a dark and bloody battlefield. Mann does not reveal whether he lives or dies.

On the final pages of the novel, however, Mann again leaves room for optimism. His response to Wagner and the 19th century this time is less tidy, more cautious—bloody historical circumstances are not as forgiving as idealistic philosophizing or Schubertian artistry. But even so, Mann opens the possibility of transcendence. He closes his 900-page novel with a question, itself inherently forward looking in that it demands an answer from the future: “And out of this world-festival of death, out of this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all around–will love someday rise up out of this, too?” Mann addresses both love and death in this final sentence, but unlike Wagner he no longer takes it for granted that they belong together. He leaves us not with Hans’ Liebestod—but with the possibility, however gritty, of love’s ultimate resurrection from death.

And in one final touch of hope, Hans sings as he disappears from sight. The music that struggles to rise above the final pages of the book is not Isolde’s Liebestod, not some epic, backward-looking paean to death and transfiguration, but Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum. It is a piece shot through with death, to be sure, but so is life. What is most important, for Hans and Thomas Mann and Germany itself, is that Schubert does not end with that final surrender.

In the end, what towers above even the most ambiguous passages of the book, as Mann wrote, was “the idea of the human being, the conception of a future humanity that has passed through and survived the profoundest knowledge of disease and death.”*  Redemptively humanistic, Mann points to the vital necessity of a spiritual and artistic future where life and love rise above the fascination of death.

~~~~~

So that is Der Zauberberg. What about Doktor Faustus? The book was composed some twenty years after Der Zauberberg, as Mann watched the self-immolation of his country from exile in America. The story is wrenching–composer Adrian Leverkühn sells his soul to the devil (in the form of intentionally contracted syphilis) for twenty-five years of possessed brilliancy, creates, and loses everything in one torturous final scene. All of this is set down by Serenus Zeitblom, Adrian’s childhood friend–an old man, a teacher of Latin, a humanist, full of sorrow and pity and unspeakable horror at the collapse of Germany that parallels that of his friend.

Doktor Faustus still asks the same questions as Der Zauberberg–how do we grapple with our artistic past, how do we look forward towards the future? The answers Mann gives, however, are very different. If Zauberberg is at least cautiously open to optimism, Faustus is inescapably pessimistic. Serenus’ world is one where all art, and Romantic art above all, is its own parody and a lie. The only response to Europe’s artistic heritage seems to be Adrian’s brand of mocking laughter, and the only valid form of expression is satire of a satire of a satire. Descriptors like “pure,” “classical,” and “genuine” are simply outdated.

The idea of a constructive future to follow the 19th century is hardly developed, or even mentioned. There’s one very short conversation towards the end of the novel: as Serenus reports, “The hope was voiced that the youthful 20th century might develop a more elevated and intellectually cheerful frame of mind. The conversation broke apart and exhausted itself in a disjointed discussion of the question of whether there were any signs of that or not.” That is all. There is no hopeful looking-forward, no lofty for the sake of goodness and love. The familiar “20th century as solution” topic fades before it has begun, to the sound of Adrian’s mocking laughter.

And this laughter, this sardonic mockery that permeates the composer’s life and work? This is new response to the artistic past, to Wagner et alia. Irony opposes Romanticism, not pure and lovely “new classicism.” The new creative genius is born of scorn and disease and forever bound to them.

Jose Clemente OrozcoJose Clemente Orozco, Dartmouth College, from The Epic of American Civilization

Mann’s treatment of humanism is here also very different from Zauberberg. If Goethe’s Faust is post-Christian, Mann’s is post-humanity. Adrian’s universe is barbarously, scientifically vast, and mankind and his values, puny and transient, are just “a drop in the bucket.” In one of the most excruciating chapters of the work (XXVII), even Serenus, the Classicist and lover of belles lettres, is forced to conclude that his “humanistic Homo Dei, this crown of life, along with his spiritual duty, was therefore presumably the product of marsh-gas fecundity on some neighboring star…the flower of evil.” “That mostly blossoms into evil,” Adrian adds. After all, what place can humanism, with its affirmation of the moral and artistic worth of mankind, have in a world where everything exists to be mocked? Where art lies? Where Europe is falling into an abyss of painful self-annihilation? A philosophy where Man and his creations are genuinely worthy of respect and study is a thing of the past, consigned to same rubbish heap as the quaint geocentric theories of the Dark Ages.

Again, compare the above to Der Zauberberg. In a sense, the book is about humanism. Hans’ Bildung (Education) is essentially humanistic, whatever else it may be. There is something redemptively transfigurative about it, in the end. In Zauberberg‘s world, human creation and ideas may be perilous or lead to death, but they are always more than fodder for parody.

Finally–what about the endings of Faustus and Zauberberg? Interestingly enough, Faustus also closes with questions, with a figure vanishing from sight. In the final paragraph, Serenus gives us personified Germany herself, who “plummets from despair to despair…in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror.” He asks, “When will [Germany] reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of this final hopelessness, will a miracle that goes beyond faith bear the light of hope?”.

But what sort of questions are these? Do they look towards the future for an answer, or only backwards, on the war that has brought horror and debasement? Are they asked by a man entirely despairing of a hopeful answer? A sort of prayer forms the final sentence of the book: “A lonely man folds his hands and says, ‘May God have mercy on your poor soul, my friend, my fatherland” (534). But the speaker is almost broken by disgust and grief, the friend already consecrated to Satan. What else is left?

apokalypseAlbrecht Dürer, from the Apokalypse

So it all begs the question: is the query at the end of Zauberberg different? Is it somehow more forward-looking, less despairing? The answer is ambiguous, no doubt. But look at the differing backdrops to these final paragraphs, and examine what has come before the questions. In Faustus, there has been no preceding humanistic Bildung, no talk of dying for the future with the word of love on one’s lips–no talk of a future at all, except to express disgust over the travesty of it all. There has been no coming-of-age, but rather its reversal, a descent to madness. Adrian’s forced return to childhood on the final pages is truly worse than death, this rending of soul from body.

And the music in the last chapter of Dr. Faustus is no melancholy but ultimately life-affirming Schubert Lied, no representative of 20th-century classicism. Instead there is Adrian’s own Lamentation of Dr. Faustus, a gargantuan wail in 12-tone serialism for choir and orchestra, a monstrous work that permits “no consolation, reconciliation, transfiguration.” “It ought not be” is its great leitmotif, felt in every measure and cadence. Adrian’s definitive statement on the work comes some thirty pages from the end of the novel, in one of the most heartbreaking passages in modern literature:

“I have discovered that it ought not be.
“What ought not be, Adrian?”
“The good and the noble,” he replied, “what people call human, even though it is good and noble. What people have fought for, have stormed citadels for, and what people filled to overflowing have announced with jubilation–it ought not be. It will be taken back. I shall take it back.”
“I don’t quite understand, my dear fellow. What do you want to take back?”
“The Ninth Symphony,’ he replied. And then came nothing more, even though I waited.

Of course Adrian means Beethoven’s Ninth, that forward-looking exposition of  joy and humanism, representative of a world purposefully negated in Faustus. As Serenus concludes, “There were years when we children of the dungeon dreamt of a song of joy–Fidelio, the Ninth Symphony–with which to celebrate Germany’s liberation, its liberation of itself. But now only this work can be of any use, and it will be sung from our soul: the lamentation of the son of hell, the most awful lament of man and God ever intoned on this earth, which begins with its central character, but steadily expanding, encompasses, as it were, the cosmos.”

~~~~~~~

So that is Doktor Faustus. Where does it leave Thomas Mann? At the end of his life, did he believe in art, his own or anyone else’s? Was Adrian’s world, fought against in Zauberberg, at last fully his own? I certainly have no definitive answer to these sorts of questions. Perhaps a clue, though, can be found in his last book, Felix Krull, only partially complete at his death in 1955. It is a return to high comedy, and a focus on mankind’s ability–if not for high nobility and wisdom, then at least for reason, craft, survival.

And of course, there is the very fact that Mann kept writing. Doktor Faustus was not his last book. That in itself–the creative act–is, I think, the most hopeful, inherently humanistic and forward-looking act of which mankind is capable. “It ought not be,” it seems, was Adrian’s motto and not Mann’s own.

__________

*From “The Making of the Magic Mountain”–Mann’s own writings on his magnum opus, a must read.

Requiescat in Pace, Patrice Chéreau

rhs_265660.JPG_image_scaler_0x600The famous final scene of Götterdammerung, Bayreuth 1976

French director Patrice Chéreau died yesterday from lung cancer, at age sixty-eight. I knew him mostly for his groundbreaking productions of Wagner’s operas, which, in my opinion, have come closer to bringing the composer’s universe onto the stage than any others I have seen. It’s hard to think of a single contemporary director today who has done as much, with such consistency, over a career spanning so many decades.

Chéreau’s 1976 Bayreuth Ring, in particular, shatters every preconceived notion about what it means to perform Wagner. In a time and place given over to conservatism and literalism, Chéreau dared to interpret Wagner symbolically rather than literally, dared to remove him from the world of Medieval myth and place him in our own, and, above all, dared to demand that his performers be equal parts actor and singer. His work is gritty, moving, often beautiful, always shattering. Requiescat in pace, Sir.

The ever-eloquent Alex Ross has more.

Winterstürme, Die Walküre

Final scene, Götterdämmerung

Liebestod, Tristan und Isolde

 

The Expressionist Chair

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA…After a lengthy and animated discussion in my German Film seminar about the chair in Das Kabinet des Doktor Caligari. I personally would take the expressionist version any day.

Expressionism, n: a term used to describe works of art and literature in which the representation of reality is distorted to communicate an inner vision. The expressionist transforms nature rather than imitates it.

Highly recommended if you like creepy, campy silent films from 1920s Germany. Also, the aesthetics of the whole thing were rather Kafka. Behold the original:

chair

Art: Dada and Bread & Puppet

library2

I went down to Chelsea last night to see a traveling performance of the Bread and Puppet Theater in the old town hall. The setting was classic Vermont–tiny town surrounded by green hills, dusty wood-floored room with paneled ceiling and folding chairs in front of the stage. A space and a part of the state I love.

I had heard of Bread and Puppet, but had never seen one of their performances. Founded by a German baker in New York and now located in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the group has spent the past half-century baking bread, writing manifestos, and presenting provocative, surrealist, and occasionally anarchic spectacles in New England and around the world. They are Cheap Art and Political Theater, they say–art is for everyone, art is food, art wakes up sleepers!

The show I saw  was based on a series of Renaissance paintings and entitled, quite lengthily, Piero Della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross: A series of tableaux vivants depicting the legend of the true cross as seen in Piero’s murals in Arezzo, mounted on a stage which resembles the Death of Adam lunette, with the Contemporary Crucifixion of an Oppositionist by Bread & Puppet Butchers and Bureaucrats.

Indeed. The four performers mixed larger-than-life puppetry, instruments, and sung and spoken word–sometimes shocking, sometimes beautiful, always with an underlying layer of absurd humor. The portrayal of the Christian religion was sometimes satirical (was God perpetrator, victim, or spectator?), sometimes deeply respectful and almost reverent (the tableau of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba with a recitation of the Song of Songs, for instance). In keeping with the group’s motto, Biblical archetype met Newsweek drama in the last scene, where contemporary “oppositionists” were symbolically crucified–the last being, rather predictably, Edward Snowden. 

If you are in Vermont and get a chance to see them, do. The gritty, vital feel of the evening and the political/artistic philosophy of the company were, to me, quite reminiscent of various avant garde movements of the early 20th century, and particularly of Dadaism. Tristan Tzara’s brilliant and insane Unpretentious Proclamation, for instance, somehow fits right in. I include it below, as it too loud to be ignored.

How different this type of artistic expression is–Dada and Bread and Puppet–than the order and rigor of a Renaissance painting, the self-conscious profundity of a Mann or Dostoevsky novel. How much more playful, unstructured, irreverent–yet still provocative, shaking us up and making us reconsider, trying to get at what it means to be human and live in the world and create.

Art is crazy. Above the rules of the Beautiful and its inspection, indeed.

Tristan Tzara

Literature: B.H. Fairchild

durer-self_portrait-1500Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500

The second poem I heard read here at school was B.H. Fairchild’s Rave On. Someone declaimed it, almost shouting, in a house full of pictures of saints and students who thought that this poet was the closest thing to a hero we had. Rave On was everything we wanted to be, and Beauty too, perhaps more than the first.

There is a  B.H. Fairchild night here every semester, somewhere between Eliot and Shakespeare in the line-up of authors. His poems are hard-hitting, occasionally obscene, constructing a bridge between high art and the brutally quotidian. Machine-shop innuendos and carwrecks and dying midwest towns in the same universe as Dürer and Virgil and Bach. They always draw a crowd–students  leaning on the window-ledges and couch backs, thumbed paperback copies of The Art of the Lathe and Usher on the floor. And this semester, B.H. Fairchild was visiting the campus in April. B.H. Fairchild, the man, in person! We were elated.

He was as paradoxical as his poems, narcissistic in the way of very intelligent people who know they have led extraordinary lives. He gave a lecture and a reading in cowboy boots and a suit jacket, worker’s hands and lined face. His father was a machinist who didn’t read. He was enthralled by words and a professor of English at a prestigious university. He spoke about wanting to save his students and not being able to, about how poetic language was akin to the coming into Being-in-the-world, the thing itself, the going-on. All that he wished for his poetry, he said, was that it be a small thing done well.

At the off-campus house where he had been idolized for years, he rambled about all the shitty things he and the guys did in highschool, how the rest of them started a band and went to California and made it big (hot chicks and convertables) while he slogged away at his PhD in English. He doesn’t reccommend doing that, by the way–the college part, that is, not the California debauch. Not right away. Not if you are 18 and male and live through poems like Rave On.

He signed the wall of the off-campus house before he left, like the other visiting poets before him but twice as large. We were exuberant.

~~~~~

At the luncheon I told him that I had been to Nürnberg and had seen Dürer’s self portrait and had such a love of it and of his poem about the work, Blood Rain. Dürer as Christ, the artist as divinity–what a crazy, bold statement, a century before Hamlet and opera and the burgeoning of the human self as a worthy subject of art. He said that he thought Dürer must have been the smug, self-satisfied type, to paint something like that. I didn’t agree, and didn’t think his poem did, either.

 

Blood Rain

Like rust on iron, red algae invading rain.

And again, the plague. Nuremberg in ruin.

At home alone, the artist prays for grace

while, gates flung open, the neighbor’s geese

roam the yard in droves, and their wild honks

and the ravings of a servant girl bring Dürer

to the window. She stands there, her wet hair

clumped in black strands, and her arms fall limp

in a great sob, her head lolling, while the damp

shift she wears blotters the rain in red streaks–

like a wound slowly spreading, Dürer sees, to make

a sign: in the bleeding fabric of her dress

as if etched in copper hangs Christ upon His Cross

between two ghosts. Cruel miracles, God’s grace

drawn in God’s blood on the body of a girl who sighs

at him, swoons, and collapses in the mud.

~~~~~

Outside, gutters turning scarlet, the dead

hauled from house to wagon, cries of women

battering the window panes. Inside, the burin

drops from Dürer’s hand as the girl wakes

and rises from the bench below his portrait,

done in Munich the year of the apocalypse, but

never to be sold, never to leave the artist’s house.

She touches once more God’s message on her dress,

then turns and stares at the painting’s face

so solemn, so god-like in its limpid gaze,

that she backs away to study the long brown locks

spread evenly about His shoulders, the beatific

right hand held more gently than the blessing

of a priest, and the inscription in a tongue

she does not understand. This is Christ!

No, it’s me, he says, touching hand to chest,

~~~~~

the rough right hand, the human chest, the heart’s dream

of art’s divinity as death rolls down the street.

 

B. H. Fairchild, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, 2003

 

Profile: St. Sebastian and Der Tod in Venedig

guido reni SebastianGuido Reni

One thing that makes reading Thomas Mann such a toilsome joy is the depth of allusion behind his prose, the resonance that stretches from Antiquity to Mann’s own contemporaries.  Dürer and Perotinus in Doktor Faustus, say, or Shakespeare in Tonio Kröger and Homer in Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice)–a thousand references dropped so easily, seemingly casually, demanding that the reader hunt them down and fit them into the larger story of Mann’s opus. They must be hunted down, too, because Mann didn’t write anything accidentally. His allusions always have some pressing import, afford some flash of insight, some backstory that draws out meaning and sets the whole plot of the book in another light.

And so one of the most transfixing allusions in Der Tod in Venedig was Saint Sebastian, whom I had never heard of. He turned out to be absolutely arresting, and here is his story. But first, here is appearance in Mann:

Early on an observant critic had described the new type of hero that this writer [Aschenbach] preferred, a figure returning over and over again in manifold variation: it was based on the concept of “an intellectual and youthful manliness which grits its teeth in proud modesty and calmly endures the swords and spears as they pass through its body”….For meeting one’s fate with dignity, grace under pressure of pain, is not simply a matter of sufferance; it is an active achievement, a positive triumph, and the figure of St. Sebastian is thus the most beautiful image, if not of art in general, then surely of the art under discussion here.

antonio de bellis 1650Antonio de Bellis, 1650

Heroism, triumph–the most beautiful image in art? Who was this Sebastian? His life was simple enough, I found. He was an officer in the Roman army during Diocletian’s 3rd century persecution of the Christians. When his own conversion to the faith was revealed, he was sentenced to be bound and killed by the arrows of his fellow soldiers. He miraculously survived his wounds and returned to confront Diocletian, but was recaptured and stoned to death.

In the early Middle Ages Sebastian was still innocent enough, invoked by soldiers and those seeking to ward off the plague, associated with the resilience that had saved him from his first death sentence. His image started to soften in the first years of the Renaissance, however, as his portrayals in art transitioned from bearded soldier to effete young man.

Somewhere in the Renaissance–and here was something closer to Thomas Mann’s saint–Sebastian became the Apollonian ideal of male beauty, all white flesh and thinly-veiled eros. The greatest of opposites were bound together perfectly in him, the physical with the spiritually ecstatic, tenaciousness with ravaged fragility, masculine and feminine at once. Great will and great weakness, beautiful even in torture. Was this Mann’s perfect form?

St-Sebastian-Mattia Preti 1660Mattia Preti, 1660

Of course it was this chiaroscuro Sebastian, and not the middle-aged army officer, that demanded the attention of Mann’s generation of artists and thinkers. He seemed to have been born for the 19th century, all isolation, suffering and desire, overtones of sadomasochism and androgyny. Here was real decadence, the stuff of Romanticism and then fin die siècle. His story fueled a cult, desperately attractive to those looking to push down walls between eros and religion, purity and lust.

And further, perhaps most tellingly for Mann’s own backstory, there was Sebastian’s transition in the 1800s from an image of male beauty to a direct homosexual icon. What had been subtext in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was celebrated and exploited, his isolation and persecution re-imagined as a sort of “coming out” narrative, the perfect form of the Renaissance painters re-drawn as the ultimate homoerotic symbol.

There were a thousand examples of such appropriation in Mann’s own decades, at the turn of the 19th century. Dorian Gray wore a cloak with a medallion of St. Sebastian, Oscar Wilde’s penname was Sebastian Melmoth. Freudian analysts reveled in the imagery of arrows-and-flesh. Early photographers and filmmakers used Sebastian’s story to blur the lines between spiritual and sexual ecstasy.

These are only snapshots from a fascinating history, a 1,000-year narrative of tension between eros, art, politics, and religion. Sebastian’s was quite the story.

el grecoEl Greco

But back to Thomas Mann. Where did Der Tod in Venedig fit into all of this? Why Sebastian, this creature of Catholicism and fin die siècle, in a work where the other allusions were so rigorously pagan, Classical? He seemed like an odd choice.

But then again, he was perfect. Like Mann’s other allusions, Sebastian’s presence in the narrative was revelatory, throwing hidden motives into relief, reflecting, foreshadowing, connecting to the broader philosophical motifs of the story.

The most blatant thematic tie-in to Der Tod in Venedig were the homoerotic aspects of Sebastian’s story. Mann’s choice of the saint fit in with his own desperately repressed biography and the basic plot of his novella, the love of a male artist for a 14-year-old boy. It matched the work’s philosophic backdrop, too-Plato’s dialogues on eros, Symposium and the Phaedrus, where Socrates sat under a plane tree and taught the workings of love to a boy.

There were ties, too, between Sebastian and Tadzio himself, the child Aschenbach fell in love with on a beach in Venice. In both figures perfect youth and masculine beauty were bound to extreme weakness, even unto death. As Aschenbach said, Tadzio wouldn’t live much longer. And like Sebastian, Tadzio was not really human in the end, but rather consecrated to the realm of symbol and transcendence, the stuff of icon, saint, divinity, Form.

But above all, Sebastian was the perfect hero for Aschenbach, the embodiment of his life’s philosophy and everything he wanted for his art. In his credo Aschenbach spoke of a creator on the edge of exhaustion, overburdened, worn down to the point of annihilation, but still standing tall. An artist holding himself upright through ecstatic feats of will, winning greatness and overwhelming beauty through a heroism of weakness–this is what it meant to create in the 20th century. And what was the art that would come of it? It would be art as Despite, Aschenbach wrote, beautiful and worthy creation despite grief and suffering, infirmity, affliction, passion, terror, pain.

And this–this Despite-philosophy, this heroism of weakness–was Sebastian. He gave Aschenbach’s credo form, and that form was perfect. He had it all, seemingly effortlessly–the exhaustion uplifted by will, the proud modesty and calm endurance, the beauty Despite torture and exhaustion. He was the most beautiful image of Aschenbach’s art because he was the apotheosis of that art. As creator and creation, Sebastian triumphed.

Nicolas Regnier, Saint Sebastian 1590-1667Nicholas Regnier, 17th c.

So there it was. Sebastian’s image in Der Tod in Venedig was an overwhelmingly powerful one, in the end, reflecting the themes of the story and the artistic worldview of the main character, giving form to both the ideal creation and the ultimate creator.

But of course, even that would have been too simple for Thomas Mann. Sebastian was beautiful, yes–but the credo he embodied, Mann informed us with the most punctilious irony, was why Aschenbach failed.

Look again.

Art as Despite–what sort of creation was that, really? It was somehow dishonest, this artistic avoidance of everything messy and painful in life. Creation despite grief? Despite passion? That was art in spite of life itself, and as such could only be one-sided, sterile, destined for the very frigidity Aschenbach found himself trapped in on a May afternoon after his 50th birthday.

And so he went to Venice and cast away all his Despite-philosophy by falling in love with a boy. But still he failed.

This was the unbearable tragedy. There was a balance to be had, and Aschenbach never found it. In throwing off all Despite he swung too far the other way, falling off the edge into delirium and self-abasement. In the place of sterile endurance there was debauchery, indignity, excess–no middle ground, no sign of the covenant between dionysian eros and standing-tall Despite that would have propelled Aschenbach to the creation of real beauty. Instead, the eros he found was criminal. His wish that the world perish in flames so that he could have his way with a child–there was no art in that.

In the end, Aschenbach lost his humanity and his life. By the final scene, is he even an artist any more? The image of Mann’s last page has little to do with Sebastian’s grace and dignity in the face of weakness. There is only a boy in the water and a fevered old man grasping towards something he can not attain. 

roberto-ferri-st-sebastian-1346685541_bRoberto Ferri, b. 1978

st-sebastian-2002 anthony gaytonAnthony Gayton, 2002

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Yes, this was supposed to be published a month ago. I didn’t post it because I didn’t know if it made sense; I still don’t. If you have feedback, please send it my way.

When I took what I had found out about St. Sebastian in to the Professor he said, “Well, those nuns back in Germany certainly didn’t teach me that in 2nd grade!” 

Here is an excellent article on the history of St. Sebastian as a homoerotic icon in art. The translation of Der Tod in Venedig is Clayton Koelb’s. Also, Guido Reni is simply astounding. And that is all.

Kunst: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sankt Sebastian

Guido Reni Sebastian 2

Wie ein Liegender so steht er; ganz

hingehalten von dem großen Willen.

Weitentrückt wie Mütter, wenn sie stillen,

und in sich gebunden wie ein Kranz.

*

Und die Pfeile kommen: jetzt und jetzt

und als sprängen sie aus seinen Lenden,

eisern bebend mit den freien Enden.

Doch er lächelt dunkel, unverletzt.

*

Einmal nur wird eine Trauer groß,

und die Augen liegen schmerzlich bloß,

bis sie etwas leugnen, wie Geringes,

und als ließen sie verächtlich los

die Vernichter eines schönen Dinges.

 

Saint Sebastian

So he stands like someone lying down; fully

held back by his great will.

Distanced, reveried, as mothers when they nurse,

and bound into himself like a ring.

*

And the arrows come: now and now

as if they sprang from his own loins,

iron-quaking with their free ends.

Still he smiles darkly, not yet wounded.

*

Only once is his sorrow great,

his eyes laid bare in pain

until they deny something slight and mean,

as if they scornfully set free

the annihilators of a beautiful thing.

 Rilke_Signature

_______________________

A lovely and disturbing poem. [Poor] translation my own. Painting from Guido Reni. More to come later on St. Sebastian and Death in Venice.

Being: Christmas Break and Thomas Mann

Home! The Sister and I flew in last week, back to wood floors and fireplaces and gourmet pizza, to tramps through the woods in rubber boots and an excess of fuzzy cats. The house smells like moth balls and pine branches and fires and hay. I can discard tailored wool blazers and ironed blouses and dress like a hippie for a month. The Brother has perfected a dozen new yoyo tricks to perform to Rod Stewart turned up too loud. We all have to spend inordinate hours making Christmas cookies and watching Dr. Who. It is simply good to be here.

~~~~~~

Everything is more or less Thomas Mann. He was my independent study topic with the enigmatic German Professor, and took up every spare moment of the semester, as well as many moments that were not spare, to the general bereavement of the research projects. The study was fantastic, one of the best things I have done at the college–a four-month-long discussion of art, music, philosophy, criticism, literature, auf Deutsch, all per Thomas Mann. And he is astounding.

The first half of the semester was Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice)–fin de siecle and classicism, a heady and haunting synthesis of pagan gods and decadence and the music of a dead composer from Vienna. And Plato’s Eros, which may well have been the most thrilling discovery of the semester. Read the Symposium and Phaedrus. Creation in Beauty, possession of Beauty–are they all that different? And why does Aschenbach fall so tragically short of both?

Next came the question of salvation, redemption–Erlösung–in Mann. Where was it? Certainly not in Art, that much was certain. Mann  was no Romantic, and those who loved Art in his world strayed towards damnation. What then? I was discomfited.

We ought to look at Irony, said the Professor. That was as much a solution in Mann, as much a redemption, as anything he could think of. So we did, in Tonio Kröger and then Beim Propheten (At the Prophet’s), where the Novelist (Mann himself?) day-dreamed about a ham sandwich in the middle of the most mystical revelations. The Professor laughed until he had to wipe his eyes, and said that–ironic laughter–was as good a redemption as any, Emily, and didn’t I agree? I, being a good Wagnerian and thus rather in love with the idea that Through Art All Men Are Saved, didn’t, really.

And then the women. Gerächt (Revenged/Avenged) was Mann’s feminist manifesto, at first glance. Or was it? Was Mann’s treatment of women–in his other works–really any different than that narrow and laughable view he exposed to such ridicule in Gerächt? It all tied into my general uneasiness with the women in the works we were reading in 19th Century Lit, going all the way back to Goethe’s Ewig-Weibliche…..

I got a little carried away.

“You should write a feminist interpretation of Thomas Mann,” said the Professor. “But that’s boring.” I said. “And sad.” I don’t want to be a feminist, I want to be a humanist. And it is ever so much more productive to love these great artists, through and beyond all their short-sightedness and prejudice. Cynicism, disenchantment, and bitterness get one precisely nowhere, as a student, critic, and human being.

~~~~~~

But there was a broader tension, behind it all, something discomfiting about the discussions. By taking Thomas Mann so seriously, by letting him be so vitally important, by allowing–by even demanding–that he speak in the 21st century, were we not at least a little outdated? Are his artistic, cultural, political questions–the questions of nearly one hundred years ago–the questions of today? Could they be? Have we moved beyond Mann’s Munich, Mann’s America?

After the Doktor Faustus discussions, the Professor asked if anyone can create great art now without the Devil. Where can valid artistic inspiration come from, anymore? I wanted to know if he was posing the questions as Thomas Mann or himself, in 1945 Germany or now, in mid-western America at a liberal arts college that believes in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. He didn’t know. Neither did I.

I asked  if he thought Germany would ever produce another towering, all-conquering Artist, Künstler, along the lines of a Goethe or Wagner or Mann. “Welt-erobernd…” he says. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think they can. That time is long past.” That is heart-breaking, I said. What happened to Faust? What happened to the future?

On the final day of classes, we read the last page of Doktor Faustus, this final book, aloud. Almost impossibly difficult. Is it not a novel for the end of the world? What can follow such final chapters? When art is its own criticism, when the novel as a genre is consummated and destroyed by the very act of its creation–as Wagner did, I said, with Tristan und Isolde–what can come next? It is an end, not a beginning.

But, in differing ways, both the Professor and I came to the conclusion that there is some small hope, some way out. He pointed to the final sentence of the novel, a prayer–one must have hope, he said, one must believe in something, to pray. Prayer, like the question that ends Der Zauberberg, looks towards the future.

And I said, whether blindly and youthfully optimistic or not, that there is often an ending, but always an answer. Mann’s Faustus is not the last ending, nor the first. What about Greek Tragedy, that narrows and narrows and narrows human experience into a dark and endless point? What about King Lear, where they kneel and pray to a God who never comes?  Where Howl, Howl, Howl are the only honest words left? Nihilism, denial, renunciation writ large, long before Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Art could have ended right there–but it didn’t, I said, it didn’t. Look at everything that has come since. I’m not going to go through life believing that Western Culture is in decline because Adrian Leverkühn wrote a twelve-tone Lamentatio and went insane.

~~~~~~

And there it was. A wonderful, difficult semester. And best of all, we are going to start all over again with Robert Musil next year–from what I can tell, a very different creature. Lyric to Mann’s epic, perhaps, all sparkling inner-ness and Gestalt psychology, pace classicism and irony.