Thomas Mann, Freud and Music

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann’s reputation as a writer rests on three or four great achievements.

One was to have achieved the consummate novel of ideas.[1] In the quarter century after his death in 1955 this view prevailed.  The Magic Mountain  (1924) was the novel that made the case.

The second was to have built a body of ‘ironic’ work, fiction and non-fiction, that exposed and resisted, but also tried to explain, the twentieth-century madness that Germany succumbed to. The Magic Mountain, the 1930 short story ‘Mario and the Magician’ and the intricate and elaborate 1946 novel Dr Faustus were the points of reference.

The third factor in Mann’s achievement, as opposed to his reputation and therefore sometimes overlooked, was  the sheer literary quality evident in the early masterpiece Buddenbrooks (1901), and the whole body of the short stories. ‘Little Herr Friedemann’ a charming story from 1894, set the model.

In particular Thomas Mann  sympathized with modest human disfunction. From the physically disabled to the over-gentle, the defenceless, the passive and the otherwise psychologically quietly troubled: sympathy with these human conditions made Mann truly a artist. Toni Buddenbrook is drawn with great sympathy in the eponymous novel, while  ‘Little Herr Friedemann’ and ‘Tonio Kröger’ (1903),  are stories about extreme erotic diffidence and  sweetly contained longings. They contain their element of self-deception but also of great pathos as the protagonists envisage themselves as somehow crippled and not quite right. The stories relate all their self-perceptions and longings and deceptions to their uncertain place in society, and bring their plight to a head.

In this slightly unexpected sense, given the usual predominance of the ironic novels, his short fiction tells us something intimate about Thomas Mann, in terms of how much he shared with Sigmund Freud. I’ve written about this elsewhere.

Mann didn’t necessarily intend tenderness to be his message, but as it seeped out he implied that Freud was tender too, and in that sense  an ally. Freud also wrote of ‘illness as a means to knowledge’, he noted, a claim which led Mann further to quote the French novelist Victor Hugo. ‘Humanity affirms itself by means of infirmity – a word that with a proud openness confesses to the tender constitution of all higher humanity and culture and to its expertise in the sphere of illness.’  [2]

Sigmund Freud. Thomas Mann's secret ally

Sigmund Freud. Thomas Mann’s secret ally

The fourth factor in Mann’s career was the creation of himself,  as a public man and an integrated self, a project he illustrated with a great deal of first-person and autobiographical writing: letters, diaries, confessions and appropriate quotations from other writers. He took Goethe as an inspiration and a model, and there was a strong element of self-protection in the project, as well as a willingness to have political greatness thrust upon him. Through the Nazi period and after the war Mann became the Germany that had gone wrong, and could speak for itself, and remain human, while seeking forgiveness.

It’s curious Freud both helped Mann come to terms with his personal oddness and latterly (1936) to build a publicly useful, if self-protective persona. At times he came close to being Freud’s Doppelgänger. Thus there are ironies in the life too.

Another of the personal ironies was music, which both threatened to undo his self-control and gave him the inwardness he so brilliantly articulated as a writer. One has especially to look at what Mann meant by music in the context of his lifelong project of self-mastery as a married, repressed homosexual.

Mann was deeply musical and played the violin. He was passionate about Wagner and the German Romantic tradition. However when he spoke or wrote the word music much more often he meant some force, some power of joy which seemed to dissolve individual separateness. Before Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Freud this force had dared not speak its name philosophically. It was the power of the non-rational over the human soul, the power of whatever it is makes us seek out metaphysical and religious experience, and which often manifests itself as sexual desire.

In Romantic music as Mann understood it the instinctive drive for satisfaction surged forth at the cost of social and intellectual order and propriety. It conjured with appetites that could perfectly countenance self-destruction. Music was the promise of satisfaction and delivery welling up from within, an obscure mixture of metaphysics and sexuality with immense emotional and aesthetic purchase. At the same time it was, necessarily, a threat to those who were hanging on to carefully wrought social orderliness by their fingertips. The intimacies of Romantic music tended to undermine the resolve of those desperately trying not to lose their self-control and with it their position in society. Thus Thomas Mann himself.

In ‘Tonio Kröger’ (1904) the young Tonio, half-German, half-Italian, is divided in his pull towards what is normal and his attraction to art. The attraction of art as a way out of the orderly world of high bourgeois north Germany. Reading Schopenhauer reinforces the temptation. For Schopenhauer, and Schopenhauer’s view of art, announces the possibility of a retreat from the appetitive Will which otherwise forces our participation in the actual world. Art rescues us from our immediate desires and needs and carries us off into a swirl of ideas and emotions that have no external form. It offers us a retreat. But surely the impulse of the responsible artist is to create permanent forms in the name of humanity and culture, and to do this the artist must hone his will in the direction of the moral, and not seek to escape it. In the case of Gustav von Aschenbach, who meets his ‘Death in Venice’ in the novella of that name (1912) this becomes Mann’s own experiment. It’s just there that the honing of the will has been pushed too far, that it is unnatural. The project is rendered as one of extreme sexual repression, and finally it collapses. Here is a great man who wages a constant soldierly campaign against himself until new love, the risk of relaxing on holiday and the strange surroundings of Venice in the time of cholera, undo him forever.

Vintage cover of a German edition of Death in Venice

Vintage cover of a German edition of Death in Venice

We know now, and Mann wanted us to know, posthumously, of  the intense, lifelong and only partly repressed homosexual desire that probably more plagued than gratified him. That at least is my impression. Mann’s was to be, like Nietzsche’s but in a different context, a life of self-overcoming.

Tonio Kröger is often read as a story setting art against life. But against the background of coming to terms with his inner otherness, and how Mann has found philosophical and musical ways of talking about it, this story quintessentially set oddness against normality. The compensations for oddness included art at the highest level, creating it and appreciating it. Meanwhile artistic achievement was already the ultimate in self-overcoming. A literary artist could salute normality and be accepted as normal through his writing.

He did really want that self-overcoming and that normality. As he said of himself he was divided straight down the middle when it came to these two great pulls in life, normality and art. In much of his work he seems to be talking about ways of fleeing from reality into an ‘inner freedom’ where guilt was a private matter (something he wrote about in comments on Schopenhauer in  1917), but his eventual reputation was of a writer who took responsibility for his whole country.

Mann’s self-analysis – and in fact the extraordinary connection he makes between his own inner life and the inner life of cultured Germany as a whole comes to a head in The Reflections of a Non-Political Man (1918) which defends German inwardness against the liberal civilization of the West. There is the apolitical retreat into matters of the soul, and against it there is the world of democratic political engagement.

If in 1918 and despite the first world war he can’t quite bring himself to condemn the old inwardness he loves, six years later in  The Magic Mountain Mann exposes the futility of the flight into metaphysical speculation and artistic wizardry. Or rather he shows that it is comic and futile in the case of a healthy, normal, let’s say simple person, who has other ways of grounding his life. The good soul Hans Castorp (who, unlike Tonio Kröger has a thoroughly German name and no inner dividedness) simply risks being exploited by philosophical and political quackery. He would do better to serve his country as a soldier.

The self-overcoming of The Magic Mountain culminates in the Nobel Prize and Mann’s taking up the role of moral preceptor to the nation.  And this is when he begins to associate with Goethe and Freud as public men who have also known the dangers and the seductiveness of romanticism.

The many quotes Mann incorporated into his work from Goethe and a few from Freud helped him reexamine and reassess his own intentions and achievements. In 1932, a time of political crisis in Germany and worldwide acclaim for Mann (who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929), Mann said of Goethe: ‘Goethe was the Lord and Master of the German era of Bildung [3] whose humane magic, particularly in the case of Goethe, existed in a unique psychological connection of autobiographical self-development and self-fulfilment with the idea of education; existed in such a way that the idea of education forms a bridge and a transition out of the world of personal inwardness into the world of the social.’[4] Ten years earlier Mann had written of Goethe’s ‘pathos of renunciation’ – [sein] Entsagungspathos–  which he said was even more was an ethos of renunciation – ‘ein Entsagungsethos’.[5]

Goethe, the great German wise man

Goethe, the great German wise man

This I suggest is also how the mature Mann saw himself, as having renounced the temptation to be a bohemian outsider on moral grounds. His was now not a matter of repression but a conscious decision to let a certain Ego emerge to displace the Id that once lurked.  He would abandon inwardness and solitude and take up a public role.

In 1936 his quote from Freud’s 1932 lecture ‘Die Zerlegung der Psychischen Persönlichkeit’[6] ( ‘The Dismantling of the Psychical Personality’) is exactly that:  Wo Es war, soll Ich werden.’ ‘Where the Id was, the Ego should emerge.’ In fact the 1936  essay‘Freud and the Future’, a salute on Freud’s 80th birthday,  picked up on what Mann had already keenly argued seven years earlier in his essay ‘Freud’s Place in Modern Intellectual History’, and here already we can see Mann making about Freud some of the adjustments he wanted to make about himself.  In ‘Freuds Stellung in der modernen Geistesgechichte’ Mann was keen to point out that although Freud focused on the non-rational and irrational elements in the human make-up his was a rational project which served the Enlightenment. He wrote: ‘Freud’s interest as a researcher in the affective life emerges not as a glorification of his object at the cost of the intellectual sphere. His anti-rationalism means an insight into the actual superiority of instinct in terms of its power over intellect (Geist); but it doesn’t mean that [Freud] rolls over before this superiority and despises the power of mind (Geist). He gives no cause for these confusions and will not become a victim of anything of the kind. He serves the revolutionary victory of reason and intellect as envisaged for the future.’[7]

Mann as a writer was similar. Don’t forget that both he and Freud had come through the era of the Bolshevik Revolution and the end of the Hapsburg and German Empires, and that reason at this time was seen as the progressive force. Experiencing first-hand the irrationality of Nazism, and the cleverness with which it used such devices as Romantic music,  Mann had learnt what sacrifices had to be made for the cause of reason. For the same reason Wagner now left him deeply ambivalent.

He wrote: A passion for Wagner’s enchanted oeuvre has been a part of my life ever since I first became aware of it and set out to make it my own, to invest it with understanding. What it is has given me in terms of enjoyment and instruction I can never forget, nor the hours of deep and solitary happiness amidst the theatre throng, hours filled with frissons and delights for the nerve and the intellect alike, with sudden glimpses into things of profound and moving significance, such as only this art can afford.

Yet there was another side to Wagner (and in this dual perception of Wagner, both spellbound and afraid, Mann was again like Nietzsche):

‘The man had so much ability talent and interpretative skill – more than words can say. Yet so much affection with it, such lordly pretension, self-aggrandizement and mystagogical self-dramatization – again more than words can say or patience can bear’ [8]

Between 1929 and 1932 Thomas Mann with exceptional bravery publicly attacked the Nazis, in his earlier Freud lecture and on the anniversary of Goethe’s death. He joined a group of European writers voicing their protest. His double-edged comments on Wagner were part of the attack, and the Nazis retaliated by calling his impudent for his calling Wagner a philistine. When Hitler came to power they effectively exiled him.

Mann would henceforth set side by side his thoughts on the dangers and ambiguities of music and the troubling irrationality of the German people. In a passage from 1945 he wrote: ‘Music is a daemonic sphere. Søren Kierkegaard, a great Christian, showed this compellingly in his painful-enthusiastic essay on Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is Christian art with a negative key signature. It is the most carefully calculated order and a chaos-bearing Counter-Reason at the same time, rich in spellbinding, incantatory gestures, the magic of numbers, the art which is the most distant from reality and the most passionate, the art which is abstract and mystical.’

Mann went on:  ‘If Faust be the representative of the German soul, then he must be musical; for abstract and mystical, that is musical, is the relationship of the Germans to the world – the relationship of a professor with a touch of the daemonic, clumsy and at the same time determined by an arrogant consciousness to be superior to the world in all that is “deep”.’

There of course was the plot for the 1946 novel Doktor Faustus, finally blaming Romantic excess in German music for the turn to self-destruction.

In fact Mann was never quite willing to give up on this German world of artistic-pessimistic-philosophical inwardness, despite the Nazi catastrophe. But he tried to approach it with irony. In some way to make it comic. Or, as he calls Adrian Leverkuhn, ‘clumsy’. Unworldly. Always to hold the standard of European civilization against German Kultur.

In his maturity the point of quoting Goethe, and Freud, I’m sure, was moderately self-aggrandizing for Thomas Mann. But it was also a matter of a lifetime of self-contemplation and the attempt at self-mastery. Writing was part of that task, and that writing meanwhile became guided by the need to make a huge and unforeseen moral choice. The problem now was not the errant Thomas Mann in his secret thoughts and longings, but Nazism out in the open, wrecking the world with political irrationality and excess. The point of self-discipline for Thomas Mann was now not to conform to narrower social mores than he would have been comfortable with (although this was always a temptation of a life born to high bourgeois circumstances) but to chose a certain life-path reflecting the moral and social good. An intense reading of Freud between 1925-29 encouraged that choice of social responsibility.  He felt that Freud had made such a choice too, and that he was like Freud in that balancing out of the Romantic and the Enlightenment, the irrational and the rational, the inward and the social, within himself.

And yet still Mann clowned, postured and vacillated when the eyes of the world were not upon him: I draw attention to this not to undermine his public reputation but to underscore the sheer complexity of the man, and the never quite tamed forces at play in his work.

The occasion was when he had a one-to-one, although not physically direct, meeting with Freud the man.

When Mann published ‘Freud’s Place in Modern Intellectual History’ in May 1929 Freud reciprocated with what Mann called ‘a magnificent letter’ in November 1929 and separately subsequently sent Mann a copy of Civilization and its Discontents. Freud was himself a disciple of Schopenhauer in that essay and, more often than is generally acknowledged, in his thinking at large. For Schopenhauer/Freud the world was one great appetite. Wishes collide. Civilization constrains them, and on the disguised, diverted wish, and on the suspension of real needs, rests the charm of polished society and of art. [9]

If that work confirmed Mann’s view of a Freud whose constitution was as ironic and morbid as his own, Mann enjoyed wondering whether Freud would grasp the affinity. He proceeded to flirt with the possibility, at once defending himself and advancing in Freud’s direction. He took his time, and played with the delay. It was only on Jan 3rd, 1930, writing from Munich, that he got round to reciprocating Freud’s redoubled approach from the previous autumn.

In fact the latest delay only reflected more than two decades of evasiveness (since he had written, but subsequently forgotten, what a great effect Freud had had on the writing of Death in Venice).[10]  Now finally, he told Freud, he was ready for personal contact. To expose himself to the risk that Freud would grasp something about him that he couldn’t retain control over. That was the worry he was now overcoming.

It must have helped just that previous November to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature which, though Mann couldn’t know it, Freud had himself coveted.[11] What better could confirm Mann’s status as a great man? This could be a meeting of equals, even if Thomas Mann was quite something else in secret.

‘Dear Herr Professor…I came to you shamefully late – I am altogether and in all respects slow by nature. Everything must be extremely ripe within me before I can communicate it.

‘You love the poets? But chiefly, I suppose, as objects for your investigations; with a few boring exceptions we are all born to that end – myself in the van, I would say, if it did not sound conceited. It would be good to talk with you about this and kindred themes.’[12]

It seems to me a very flirtatious approach through several degrees of indirectness of language – something typical of Mann’s style. The tone, as Anthony Heilbut labels it, is certainly ‘faux-naif’ and flirts with the possibility of a confession of being quite something other than what his public reputation suggested. Mann was 54, Freud 73.[13]

Both the slowness and the ripening suggest a well defended soul, careful not to reach out to make connections where they are not welcome, and reluctant to open up; and yet one that wanted to, and was flirting to create a way forwards. In one way Mann was surely alluding to his denials of Freudian influence hitherto and his negative portrayal of psychoanalysis in The Magic Mountain. And so perhaps what he is ashamed of is of having resisted the analyst. When Hans Castorp doesn’t want to have his personality unpicked, it is Mann admitting that he hadn’t wanted that in his case either.

Now he dares face up to his Freud fascination/evasion perhaps? Mann wonders with a raised eyebrow. He has learnt that Freud loves poets, or, better, writers. Dichter.  In fact the question form makes that quality of Freud’s sound a little unlikely and, perhaps unwise, faintly comic. You love writers? No, he corrects himself, it’s not an erotic urge that brings Freud to make contact. It is purely in the service of his science, to take writers as his objects of inquiry. But then again, and this is almost an outburst, I, Thomas Mann (gay, louche, struggling, somewhat sickly with heart and chest, and an outsider) feel as if I’ve been waiting all my life to become your object, Herr Professor. That’s what I was born for. But look I don’t want to push myself forward as someone who must be important to you, or of your stature in the world. That would be conceited.

There is a great deal of jockeying for power here too. Really if they met they should meet as equals.

My 2000 book on Freud

My 2000 book on Freud

What Freud had to say privately about Mann’s essay was that it was very respectful but it seemed as if Mann had something ready on Romanticism and then asked to write about Freud just tacked it on; although whatever Mann wrote was solid stuff. [14] But probably Freud never realised how Mann had identified with that disruptive, uncontrollable underlayer in human life that for him was the unconscious and the dreamwork, and for Mann was music. Music for Thomas Mann was more than notes on a page, and a history of composers and what was played at concerts. It was that universal force which incorporated erotic drives, and included the death wish. It was for this reason that Mann now in turn claimed Freud for German Romanticism.

They were a pair, united in the huge influence upon them of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Mann must readily have identified with much in Freud’s Schopenhauerian  Das Unbehagen in der Kultur- the German title of Civlization and its Discontents and meaning literally ‘Unease in Culture’. Unease in culture was Mann’s inner life.

There were the other things and good things that united them. I mentioned at the outset of this essay their sympathetic attitude to their fellow human beings in distress and the sense of illness as a teacher of humanity. Moreover someone once said Freud and Mann had a certain ‘true comedy’ in common by virtue of not being cultural determinists.[15] Their territory was ambiguity, which amused both of them.

I see them as two great men toying with the ambiguities and underlying tensions of civilization long premised on the greatness of European humanity and now teetering on the edge of a European cataclysm.

[1] D.J. Enright was amongst those who demurred.

[2] Quoted in Das Thomas Mann Buch (ed. Michael Mann Frankfurt am Main 1965) p.145 from ‘Freud and the Future’ (1936)

[3] Cf Freud ‘Ich bin in deutscher Bildung erzogen.’

[4] Quoted in Das Thoman Mann Buch p.76 from ‘Goethe als Repräsentant des bürgerlichen Zeitalters’

[5] Quoted in Das Thomas Mann Buch p.134 from ‘Goethe und Tolstoi’.

[6] No 31 in the Neue Vorlesungen series SA 1: 516, GW 86: 516 SE 22: 80

[7] Section quoted in Das Thomas Mann Buch p.63, translation mine.

[8] Quoted in Anthony Storr Music and the Mind p.119

[9] This treatise, although the printed version bears the date 1930 was actually typeset in November 1929 – see the introduction to the Studienausgabe of Freud’s works Band IX.

[10]  Wolfgang F. Michael, ‘Thomas Mann auf dem Wege zu Freud’, in: Modern Language Notes 65, 1950, pp.165-171

[11] Peter Gay Freud p.552

[12] (The Letters of Thomas Mann 1889-1955 selected and translated by Richard and Clara Winston (1970) p.151

[13] Anthony Heilbut in his 1995 biography of Mann asks (p.475): ‘Was he inviting a Freudian interpretation? It is hardly likely; as we saw, he denied Freud’s therapeutic goals…he considered psychoanalytic interpretations of homosexuality, foregrounding the mother, as “learned nonsense”. As as an object he didn’t require the analyst’s investigation.’

[14] Letter to Lou Salome 28 July, 1929

[15] Freud and the Twentieth Century p.177

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