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.

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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

Literature: Franz Kafka II: Dialogue, Humanism, God

I’m still trying to sort out Franz Kafka. He was the topic of this semester’s independent literature study–my second-to-last in the on-going project with the enigmatic German Professor, which began three semesters ago with Thomas Mann and Robert Musil. It’s the best thing I’ve done as a student here, this intensely personal investigation of tortuous novels that has expanded to include music, philosophy, aesthetics, and myth.

Franz Kafka is such a different figure than Mann or Musil. His obsessions are different, as are his questions and his solutions. His world is entirely opposed to Thomas Mann’s, all secular humanism and sparkling irony and the brilliant residue of 3,000 years of art–opposed, too, to Musil’s intensely private universe, where the glance shared between two people occupies a dozen pages of metaphor-laden prose. If Mann addresses the relationship between man and his intellectual heritage, and Musil the relationship between man and himself, then Kafka addresses the relationship between man and God. His spirituality is real and aching and, and Camus writes, the questions he poses are those of a soul in quest of its grace. What do we do when we are confronted with the Other-worldly? Is God cruel and absurd, or full of goodness? Can human wisdom and strength win a way to the Divine? Certainly, one can read Kafka as a critique of modern bureaucracy, the industrialization of mankind, etc. etc.–but to me it is the religious nature of his works that transcends.

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Leaving philosophy aside, what about the writing itself? To me, perhaps the most pressingly disturbing aspect of Kafka’s prose was its lack of a Bezugsrahmen–a frame of reference or allusion, an overt dialogue between the author and the art and thought of the past three millennia. Kafka’s world exists apparently in a vacuum, in a universe of isolation that is as cultural and intellectual as it is personal. His characters don’t hang pictures from Dürer or Caspar David Friedrich on their walls; they don’t read books by Schopenhauer or Plato. There are no direct references in the novels (Schloss, Prozess) to Shakespeare or to Nietzsche or Antiquity–as readers, we are hardly aware that such things exist. If there is a dialogue between Kafka’s figures and their intellectual forebears, it is hidden.

This utter lack of reference to a greater intellectual tradition is especially unsettling to me, because I revel in The Dialogue, locate great spiritual and intellectual meaning in my ability to connect to three thousand years of thought. To have these connections ripped out from under my feet is intensely disorienting. How different, again, from Thomas Mann! His books are dialogues in essence–long, heady, sometimes tortuous conversations between the ideas and worldviews and artworks of human civilization. And as a result, none of his figures are ever truly isolated. Certainly, they are sometimes despairing, desperate, lonely. In spite of it all, though, they always partake of and above all believe in an intellectual and artistic tradition that is greater than any individual–a tradition that offers, I think, a sort of transcendence, a consolation.

In Kafka there is no such consolation. There is none of Coriolanus’ there is a world elsewhere, no sense that Kafka’s figures can find redemption by situating their own struggles within a philosophical or aesthetic framework that has existed for millennia and will carry on after they are gone. Joseph stands before the court in The Trial and never thinks, “Ah, so it was with Socrates in Athens. I understand now; this is what I am to do.” K. fights unceasingly to gain entrance in the castle, but he does so without the great dictum of Goethe’s Faust: Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen. Whoever strives with all his might–that man can we redeem. He remains isolated, intellectually as well as physically.

But in the end, isn’t this lack of a Bezugsrahmen infinitely fitting to Kafka’s universe? The lack of a Dialogue, the emptiness, the intellectual silence all serve to emphasize aloneness of the characters. Their hermetic solitude is perhaps the tragedy of the novels.

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Kafka’s world is also disturbingly free of humanism. Humanism tells us that men and women can move forward on their own strength, can become wiser and better and more farsighted in ways that accomplish things, in ways that lead to creation or beauty or salvation. Kafka takes these ideas and turns them upside down.

He does this above all in Before the Law, the page-long parable at the end of The Trial. In the story, a nameless man seeks in vain to gain access to the Law (grace, God, heaven?). There are a series of gates in his way, and a door-warden who rebuffs all of his attempts to enter even the first. The man sometimes sees a gleam of light through the passageway beyond the door, but dies at the end of the story without ever having set foot inside.

The story, I believe, is fundamentally a-humanistic. The seeker doesn’t become stronger through all his questioning, striving, learning, believing–but rather the opposite.

Kafka becomes anti-Goethe. Whoever strives with all his might–that man dies of exhaustion.

In this light, perhaps the most tragic sentence in the novels is the door-warden’s final statement to the man, in his last moments of life: “Der Eingang war nur für dich bestimmt. Ich gehe jetzt und schließe ihn.” The entrance was only meant for you. I am going now and closing it. That is our torture, our tragedy–that we are wise enough to know such an entrance exists, and wise enough to seek it with all our strength–but too limited, physically and spiritually, to ever gain entrance on our own strength. Humanity finds itself in an impossible position.

In this way, I think, Kafka’s is a world that the ancient Greeks would have recognized–where human beings are fundamentally weak, where their limitations are at the forefront of human existence. The divine realm exists, sends messengers, is tangible and present–but is ultimately careless and inscrutable.

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There is one more thing about Kafka’s characters, however, at the end of it all: wherever they are, in whatever circumstances, despite all confusion and weakness–they are always going to a window and opening it, and looking out. I like to imagine that this throwing-open of windows, repeated again and again throughout the novels, is itself a sort of human victory. It doesn’t matter that the world beyond the windows is often dark and snow-filled. It’s the action that counts.

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If I had finished this post five days ago, I would have ended it there. Kafka’s books are superb because they are so unbearably, unflinchingly bleak. Reading him is fascinating and compelling and cathartic in the same way reading Greek tragedy is, because we are presented with a world in which there is no out. A few open windows, a gleam of light through a impenetrable gate–what’s that, really? The works end with human limitation writ large.

Now, however, I’m entrenched in Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and it’s throwing all of Kafka into a very new light.

Per Kierkegaard, Kafka is drawing our attention not to human weakness, but to mankind’s incredible, defiant potential for perseverance, for real and tangible hope. His characters are the greatest of heroes because they are heroes of faith. They have looked into the absurd and comprehended the paradox and have chosen to believe.

But that’s all still half-formed, still confused in my own mind. There will be more to come later. In the end, Kafka is the sort of author who shifts over time–and that, I think, is why we read him.

Being: Fulbright II

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAHere is the second part of my ETA Fulbright application–the Statement of Purpose. It’s a bit more business-like than the first, but perhaps of interest to other applicants. This whole process has put all other writing projects on hold…I should be back to normal posting next week. The picture is from one lovely day in Munich last summer.

My love of Germany began with opera and old books–Wagner and Thomas Mann, specifically, revelled in over the course of three long highschool summers. It was heady stuff, and by the time I graduated I had erected a sort of German Mythos, all leitmotiv and Rhine rivers and half-mad artists. It was toweringly beautiful, I found, but essentially unreal, disconnected from the questions and concerns of the 21st century.

Now, nearly four years later, I feel like the Mythos has transferred into reality. I have learned German, spent time abroad, sought above all to ground my love of old art in contemporary existence. Last spring, I sat at a conference on modern Germany and realized what draws me to the country as it is today: it was the willingness of the panelists to engage with difficult issues head-on, the transparency,* the urgency behind the questions they were posing. This wasn’t distant academia–here were real people and concerns, sometimes uncomfortably close. Land, race, language, memory. What do those things mean today, and how do they shape who we are? We ask ourselves the same sort of questions in America, of course. In Germany, however, the discussion seems often to be more more critical, the answers brought into sharper focus because of Germany’s historical heritage and current position in Europe.

In the end, then, this is why I am applying for an ETA in Germany–not only for the beauty of their art, but because the important questions there are so pressing. The country today seems to serve as sort of catalyst for the hard questions, for investigations which can then be turned around to reflect on issues in America and elsewhere.

As a student of languages interested in pursuing education as a career, I am thrilled for the opportunities of growth and service the ETA provides. I bring almost ten years of teaching experience to the program, and a fascination with the methods of pedagogy that goes back to childhood. As a homeschooled student, I was encouraged to translate the academic into the personal, to observe what worked and what didn’t at the most concrete level. This early experience made clear to me the power of individualized, hands-on learning. Today, my job in the Writing Center is teaching me the value of real Socratic dialogue and conversation, my position as a German tutor the skill of simplicity and conciseness. As the co-director of the Latin program at a local school, finally, I have learned the importance of organization: education, however inspired, can hardly be effective without the framework of well-defined goals and curricula.

Today, I seek to bring these qualities–personalization, dialogue, simplicity, organization–to whatever teaching situation I find myself in. In a program like the ETA, however, I would add one more element: an ongoing, inclusive discussion of US culture and politics. As a participant in my college’s required courses on America’s historical, intellectual, and political heritage, I have had excellent models for this sort of exchange. While in Germany, I would be honored to serve as a representative of both the US and the Fulbright by helping students draw connections between their experiences and my own.

Outside of the classroom, I hope to continue to pursue the vital questions connected with the study of German thought. I am and always will be fascinated by 19th- and early 20th-century music, literature, and philosophy. In the end, however, there is always something discomfiting about my study of old art–a feeling that, by taking it all so seriously, I am disconnecting myself from the issues of today. With these concerns in mind, while in Germany I would like to examine the heritage of creators like Wagner and Mann in the context of the 21st century. How do these figures continue to be a part of the cultural and political dialogues of today? Most importantly, how are current German thinkers building on their legacy, and how are they moving beyond? In answering these questions I will seek real involvement wherever I am placed in Germany, especially in contemporary artistic, cultural, and academic circles.

Bieto ParsifalCalixto Bieito’s 2010 production of Parsifal, for instance. This is Richard Wagner in the 21st century–hard-hitting, painful, real. Perhaps ludicrous. Wo ist Gott?

Such a project will not only offer me a platform for social engagement while an ETA, but also lay the groundwork for further studies in the country. I intend to pursue a Masters in Comparative Literature in Germany, before returning to America for a PhD in Germanistik. With the experience gained as a Fulbrighter, I will be better equipped to one day teach languages and literature at an American university, and able to bring a more holistic perspective to the study of German art, literature, and thought–both the old and the new.

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*This theme of transparency in contemporary Germany is fascinating to me, and seems to play out at all sorts of different levels, art and academia aside. Scroll down this post from last summer, for instance, to pictures of the Reichstag and other government buildings in Berlin, architectural mirrors of the same clarity and openness.

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.

Introduction

I’m Emily. I’m a student at a small liberal arts college in mid-Western America, officially studying Classics (Latin and Greek) and German. Otherwise, I live on a sheep farm and Bed and Breakfast in Vermont.

You probably came here from my Germany blog. This new site is a continuation of that project, and also a new experiment. It has arisen out of the encouragement and prodding of various friends and teachers (Dian, Kodiak, Dr. Yaniga…), as well as out of my own occasional dissatisfaction with the confines of college-level academic writing. It is a space to practice breaking out of that mold, and breaking into something more personal and more vast.

I’m interested in the dialogue, the conversation, between centuries and genres and half-mad philosophers. What do they all have to say to each other? What do we have to say to them?

Don’t expect footnotes, bibliographies, specialization, or even complete accuracy. There will probably also be multiple posts rehashing the same sorts of things. I could, for instance, quote Hamlet in every essay I write until the day I die. At the moment I am most curious about tragedy, German opera (Richard Wagner), Shakespeare, postmodernism, Nietzsche, all music, modern art, chiaroscuro, Classical languages, Faust, land, joy, feminism, humanism, Thomas Mann, work.

Right now, I am shooting for two posts a month when I am not in school, one when I am. We shall see how that works out this next semester, along with those six academics and two jobs. Of course, I would love to hear from you, in the comments or otherwise, if you have something to critique or add or suggest.

The title is one of those wonderful Joycean neologisms, from Portrait of the ArtistThoughtenchanted silence is the whole phrase.

And finally, here is a quote from Thomas Mann (his essays on Wagner), who sums up the foundation and telos of this whole affair brilliantly, as usual.

For admiration is the best thing we have; yes, if I were asked what emotion, what reaction to the phenomena of this world, to life and art, I considered the finest, happiest, most constructive, most indispensable, I should answer unhesitatingly: admiration. What other answer can there be? What would man be, above all what would an artist be, without admiration, enthusiasm, absorption, devotion to something not himself, something much too large to be himself, yet something to which he feels most intimately allied, most powerfully congenial–to approach which more nearly, to ‘penetrate with the understanding,’ to make utterly his own, his nature passionately demands?
Admiration is humble and proud at once, proud of itself; it knows jealousy, the youthful challenge: what do you know about it? It is the purist and fruitfullest, the vision and the stimulus to competition, the makes the highest demand, it is the strongest and sternest discipline, the incentive to one’s own contribution; it is the root of all talent. Where it is not, where it withers, nothing more sprouts, all is arid and impoverished.