Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Thomas Mann

View of literature from the Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann fifty years after his death on 12th of August 1955

If readers could only stand beside Thomas Mann and view from his Magical Mountain the literary landscape below, they would hear him repeating one word over and again: boredom.

Literature is not boredom if engaged, said Sartre.

Thomas Mann, on the contrary, wove endless long sentences. In and out they go as if tedious reformulations so as to let thoughts and descriptions meet. His books are destinies to be made out on the plane of infinite thought. The temper for that can be experienced when sensing how weather and architecture go together, in order to fulfill an illusion of standing above the times.

Not a remote corner of the world is meant by such description. Rather it is to be found in some specific area in Munich, there where the atmosphere retains that spirit which prevailed before First World War. Sunrays warm the outside surface of the house. Everything appears far removed from the rest of the world. Inside young women discuss many things and they joke a lot. Without knowing it then, when young, that they are destined to become patient grandmothers.

Thomas Mann seems to make a living pattern out of their conversations. It is a chat over tee but unlike British cultivation these discussions take on a serious note about studies and about comprehending how electricity works. Making out existence included as well the depth of the psyche and was a reminder as to what role fate played already in the past.

If Thomas Mann would then again mutter the word ‘boredom’, it is because he wanted to explain emphatically his conviction that such ‘Belanglosigkeit’ – trivial matters – brought about a state of affairs which led to First World War.

Thomas Mann said emphatically in ‘Magic Mountain’, it was ‘out of boredom’ that foolish men rushed into what many thought to be just an adventure. They never foresaw into what catastrophe they marched so blindly. But rather than putting emphasis upon Thomas Mann redefining what is German, as does Reich-Ranicki, this matter of boredom in combination with the failure to anticipate should be taken up. For Thomas Mann makes literature responsible for this failure to anticipate.

Upon returning from exile after the Second World War, he would reformulate this critical evaluation and extend it by noting something to be missing in Hamburg, in Germany, namely the ‘immediacy of the world’ – die Unmittelbarkeit der Welt ist nirgendswo zu spueren: the immediacy of the world is no where to be felt! Only if literature can create such immediacy, then the look into the literary landscape would be of a different order. It would allow people to reflect what they are doing and by anticipation avoid tragic mistakes.

Thomas Mann did not give his name and statue to Hitler and the National Socialists. Contrary to Heisenberg or Weizsaecker, he decided to go into exile, so that his absence meant the so-called bourgeoisie writer did not arrange himself with a system that was heading clearly towards more than a mere catastrophe compared with First World War. By acting as he did, name and reputation of German literature was saved but not unconditional.

For writing to become and to remain world literature, the traps of all kinds of nationalism have to be avoided. Like the Greek poetess Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke would say, it is very hard to be Greek and yet not be Nationalist at one and the same time, Thomas Mann struggled to find some explanation for the unexplainable.

Once in exile, he wrote with the advice of Adorno ‘Dr. Faustus’: a portrait of Schoenberg, the composer of the twelve tone music. It is said that Schoenberg never forgave Adorno for how he was depicted in the novel. It says something about how literal should be literature, or if the person being referred to should recognize himself, alas in such unfavourable light that a confrontation with the self in all immediacy may be too much. For it might reveal someone else never thought of until then. Certainly Adorno’s intellect made possible such clear but critical mirror even if at the risk that the person being portrayed does not like what he sees. By adopting and following the advice of Adorno, Thomas Mann showed something beyond the imagination and perhaps his belonging to a generation which had a great belief in the written word. Together with Adorno he made literature into a basis for intellectual thoughts and reflections.

It was the confrontation with destiny in all its possible forms, including the Faustian tradition. That includes temptation to gain in knowledge, or the ability to compose, only under one condition: the selling one’s soul to the devil.  Such a thesis meant following the logic of knowledge based on the trivial assumption of having to know evil before knowing what is good.

With great consequence Thomas Mann wrote against that part of the German tradition to be made out in the literary landscape as a vain attempt to make something exist when in fact the turning away from such paths, before it is too late, would have been more important.

One indication why this literary landscape is reflected differently in the writings of Thomas Mann was his attempt to write with his brother who was as well in exile one common book about the house in which they had grown up in. They declared the aim of the book would be something like a gift to their father who would be able to recognize the house by how they described it and what they liked when growing up in it.

This aspiration towards nominalism, something known only to the Polish language, reveals much more what Thomas Mann was searching for: a realistic description as things are and not what is made to exist only by constructing extreme poles of good and bad for purpose of normative writing, or how things ought to be. This nominal realism of Thomas Mann comes through often as a surprise to those who were guided in their attitude by the reputation of this writer rather than really reading his books.

For instance, a drug addict in Heidelberg when hearing certain passages taken from Magic Mountain, he can come in for a huge surprise. He never thought a bourgeoisie writer like Thomas Mann was capable of confronting him with such precise descriptions of how feelings and sensations prevail before, doing and after having taken in the drug. Inconceivable for someone believing the bourgeoisie could never have such imagination, never mind knowledge of real processes going on outside their forms of existence, the surprise is to see Thomas Mann with own eyes while letting all the experiences speak up.

Lately there has been much discussion about the linkage between literature and film. By film is not meant Heinrich Breloer’s adaptation for television, although praised by Reich-Raniki and President Koehler because they perceive the history of the family Mann as an invaluable lesson for Germans (as if literature has always to be educational, in order to be of moral and cultural value) but rather a novel turned into film: Death in Venice. Both are invaluable from an aesthetical point of view. There are many questions to be asked, or as M. Foucault brings back Ancient Greece into the contemporary setting by reflecting upon the ‘desire for the young boy’. Refinement of taste means also a sense for beauty that brings about another aesthetical reflection and what would be outside the reach of German self-understanding in literature.

Presumably that is one of the reasons why the plot is located in Venice, Italy, a place where Mozart would be able to compose his operas more vividly since around him everything is filled with sounds of life. That longing for life cannot be fulfilled in a hotel bordering on the reclusive sanatoriums where those chased in their daily lives by all kinds of hectic put their minds before their bodies to rest. It is an absurd world in which the times seem to stand still and yet where every departure is being prepared meticulously as if never to return.

When looking at the German literary landscape from the Magic Mountain, then one thing is uncertain: no departures can take place, if life as a vivid experience has never happened to make immediacy a part of the world. It leaves those words spoken in honour of Thomas Mann fifty years after his death just that: a testimony of contortion by trying to wring out of literature something national, something German like water out of not stones but a cheese, in order to impress the giants with his strength, but in knowing it is a fake test of strength, he just proves his cleverness. Ernst Bloch would say here begins the legacy.

It may become repetitive, and therefore a mistaken search for answers when world literature as written by Thomas Mann awaits patiently that its immediacy is understood in terms of making the imagination go beyond mere definitions, in order to allow the taking up of dialogue with human reality.


Hatto Fischer



This article was first published in heritage radio


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