| The gaze of absolute art
Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art By Hermann Kurzke Allen Lane, £ 25
In 1939, with the dusk of the gods darkening the skies of Europe, Thomas Mann — Nobel laureate and German exile at Princeton — published a novel about his countryman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Mann’s The Beloved Returns presents Goethe’s early love, Charlotte (immortalized in The Sorrows of Young Werther), visiting Weimar a little more than forty years after their association to look up Goethe, now an ageing celebrity. Having created a stir in the city by her reappearance, Lotte is called on by one of Goethe’s ardent worshippers, who takes upon himself the task of explaining the genius of the man to her. He sees in Goethe the terrible doubleness of God Himself: “If God is All, then he is also the Devil…so that, in a manner of speaking, heaven looks at you out of one eye, and the hell of iciest negation and most destructive neutrality out of another.” “What sort of gaze,” he asks Lotte, “is that wherein the horrifying contradiction of the two eyes is united'” And then he answers his own question: “It is the gaze of absolute art, which is at once absolute love and absolute nihilism and indifference, and implies that horrifying approach to the godlike-diabolic which we call genius.”
Hermann Kurzke’s unflinching exploration, in this new biography, of Mann’s own formidable genius helps us fathom the extent to which Mann is here talking about, perhaps even mocking, himself in his own late years. What mediates between the high seriousness and the light mockery in such a passage is, of course, Mann’s celebrated irony. The combination of vast learning, total familiarity with the Mann corpus and archives, and an intuitive understanding of their human motivations and contexts allows Kurzke to illuminate this irony as both a personal strategy and an aesthetic achievement. It structures Mann’s life, as well as his writing. It also places him within the great Germanic tradition that stretches from Romantic to modern, a line of descent that joins him to Goethe and Schiller through Freud, Nietzsche and Wagner.
Unlike Mann’s English biographer, Donald Prater (whose account of Mann’s life is a model of linearity), Kurzke dispenses with a linear narrative altogether. The main sections focus on segments of time and are chronologically arranged, although often with significant overlaps. There is a brief chronicle of events and publications at the beginning of each section, and then there are very small chapters, sometimes just a paragraph long, focussing on particular moments, themes, image-clusters, people, incidents or individual works falling within that time-segment. These detailed readings freely move back and forth in time and across genres of writing, unearthing a network of connections and leitmotifs, concealments and disclosures, echoes and prefigurings. What emerge slowly are the shapes and textures of a self-consciously Olympian greatness — privately forged and suffered, publicly affirmed and celebrated — unfolding along the linear axis of an almost epic history, but explored and elaborated through synchronic cross-sections of lived experience metamorphosed into art.
Every biographer of Mann will have to decide what to do with his private notebooks, which could make the writing of his life either hugely exciting or virtually impossible. Now that the shock of their revelations has subsided, and the Tadzios and Felix Krulls become part of the mythology of a liberated modernity, what do the journals reveal about the essential temper of Mann’s private and creative lives' Mann’s biographers are therefore left with at least four tiers or levels of “truth”. First, the notebooks; the published autobiographical pieces like A Sketch of My Life and Reflections of an Unpolitical Man; then the stories, novellas and novels; and finally the literary, political and polemical essays. Kurzke is careful to point out that the notebooks are not diaries, the letters unproductive as far as intimacies are concerned, the literary work not reliable biographically. “We know only stylizations of various degrees concerning what happens, not the events themselves.” But Mann himself, in a 1934 notebook entry, provides the best key to how they could be read: “I like holding fast the fleeting day according to its sensual and suggestive, also its intellectual, life and content, less for memory and for rereading than in the sense of accountability, conscious retention, and consolidating control.”
The words, “conscious” and “control”, are crucial here, and return us to that initial image of the divided gaze of “absolute art”. The key lies in a letter Mann wrote to the critic, essayist and teacher, Carl Maria Weber, in 1920 — at the beginning of the decade that would mark the pinnacle of his career, transforming the “unpolitical man” into a profoundly political creature in response to fascisms both within and without. In the letter, Mann is relating to Weber his striving after “an equilibrium of sensuality and morality” while writing Death in Venice. This strife is part of the “painful process of objectivation, imposed on me by the inner necessities of my nature”. He then quotes a few lines from one of his poems: “Amid tears the struggling spirit/ Pressed forward to speak in song. But alas there was no change./ For a sobering effort began then, a chilling command to control./ Behold, the intoxicate song turned into a moral fable.”
This is both an aid to and an appeal for a complex understanding of his life and art, of his life into art. The central paradox and mystery — the essential contradiction — of Mann’s life is its quality of ruthlessly self-aware repression, a willed decision to embrace a conservatism which he defined, intriguingly, as “the erotic irony of the mind”. Yet, Kurzke describes this physical and metaphysical commitment to orderliness as a “desperate battle against encroaching chaos”. This is a form of Romantic Stoicism which holds within its Apollonian confines the torment and the glory of Dionysian individualism.
The “stern happiness” which is the Romantic Stoic’s publicly avowed reward is built as much on sustained discipline as on the capacity to capture in living art the “extremely delicate, difficult, agitating and painful” yearning of the Mind for Life. The sublime mischief, and control, in Mann’s description of this yearning convert the “moral fable” back into “intoxicate song”: “A few wise men and poets have held that here was Eros and nowhere else — in this tender, holy, painful back-and-forth between life and mind.”