Being: Spring Semester

snowstorm3It is the coldest of Februarys, all frozen mud and raw mid-western sleet. Der Wind, der Wind, das himmlische Kind–no matter which way you walk, it blows in your face.

This semester is full of Robert Musil, and you love him. You try to talk in German about the part of human existence that lies outside of words. You fail.

Latin. You start admiring secondary literature for the first time in your life, thanks to the young Classics professor who gives you as much literary theory and crazy feminist interpretations of Ovid as you could wish for. She is new to the department, and the adulation of the female Latin and Greek students is only slightly veiled. An article by Foucault on the death of the author derails the seminar and her office hours for half a week.

 
What if the author didn’t matter? You are still debating this point days later, with the vanload of bright-eyed 19-year-old Classicists on the way to teach Latin to third graders.

And Eros, from Plato’s Symposium, in Greek, with Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig added in for good measure. Everything is thrown open. There is more here than you ever thought. Eros as possession and procreation. Eros as philosophy and the philosopher together. Eros as the mediator transcendent, halfway between foolishness and wisdom, poverty and wealth, appearance and reality. Eros as a way of being–give and take, presence and absence, the tension and release at the root of all scholarship and of all being-in-love-with. It is the idea of the semester.

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Elsewhere. Being a good Nietzschean and nagged by the fear that you just might turn into Hesse’s Steppenwolf, you resolve to learn to dance. You find out that you are more horrible at it than you thought. This is a great disappointment not only to yourself, but also to whatever poor sap ends up partnering with you in Social Dance 101.

Young Goethe from last semester has grown out his sideburns and entirely ruined his looks.  You decide that he amply compensated, though, by simultaneously darning his own jacket and reciting Auden last Friday.

The other weekly readers of poetry and singers of songs have fixated on medieval chant. Crucem Sanctam Subiit–there are a dozen verses, and everyone must learn them all so you can sing them thirty-five voices strong, pounding on the floor, the faces of the young men transfigured in some sort of spiritual ecstasy. They all want to be monks someday.

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Photograph from my sister, ever-talented.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.