by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 11, 1996.
"Come, I will take you down underneath this impassive exterior, I will tell you what to say of me, / Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover." The words are Walt Whitman's, from "Calamus." They are also, surprisingly, Thomas Mann's, in a lecture delivered before a Berlin audience in 1922. It was a fateful occasion: the most celebrated of German novelists, up to that time a man of reactionary tendencies, stepped forward to embrace the young, ill-loved, ailing Weimar Republic. Certainly it was not outlandish for a born-again German democrat to borrow lines from the poet laureate of American pluralism. But there was something impertinent, even lusty, in Mann's invocation of Whitman. From the start, the speech had a distractingly flirtatious tone: "German youth must be won over, so much is fact; and they are to be won, that must be a fact too, since they are not bad, but only proud and stiff-necked and prone to shuffle their feet."
Whitman's lines capture much of the character of Thomas Mann: his penchant for the impassive, towering facade, his urge to broadcast passions from it. The game of masks is a common one in literature, but it is difficult to think of another writer who was so completely divided against himself, oscillating between the grand and the abject, oratory and seduction. He delighted in playing outsized ceremonial roles: conscience of humanity, pillar of the bourgeoisie, winner of the Nobel Prize, honorary Doktor on multiple continents. He also made himself the poet of the outcast, the godfather of all broken hearts. In old age, as his eminence swelled to absurd proportions, he became openly mischievous, purveying the erotic comedy of "The Holy Sinner" and the unfinished "Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man." In that farewell masterpiece, a handsome trickster bewitches everyone in his path, including a melancholy Scottish lord who wears Thomas Mann's exact physical description. "I have enough dignity that I can squander quite a lot," Mann once remarked.
He died in 1955—eighty years old, immensely famous, much honored, much scorned. Hipsters dismissed him as a superannuated nineteenth-century litterateur. But the old man left a time-bomb ticking beneath his monumental reputation: twenty-six years of diaries, unopened until two decades after his death. When the first volumes surfaced, they sprayed sex and politics in all directions, forcing a revaluation of Mann's career. Now that all the diaries have finally been published complete, three biographies have followed in the last year: Donald Prater's "Thomas Mann: A Life," Ronald Hayman's "Thomas Mann: A Biography,", and now Anthony Heilbut's "Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature" (Knopf; $40). Knopf has also issued "The Magic Mountain," the second in its series of new Mann translations. John E. Woods' brisk, plainspoken prose has cleared away the cobwebs and confusions of the original translations by Helen Lowe-Porter.
Of the new biographies, Prater's is the one for those who need to hear about author's daily agenda, after-dinner speeches, habits of grooming, and the like. While often crushingly dull, particularly when traversing Mann's later, world-humanistic years, it is written with the grace of a veteran biographer. This is Mann the public persona, the one-time reactionary turned international democrat, the opponent of fascism; revelations in the diaries intrude as passing embarrassments. Hayman's biography tries to crack the facade, mixing the public and the private; it collapses into cheap psychoanalytic speculation. Heilbut, whose last book was "Exiled in Paradise," a free-spirited study of the German emigré community in America, offers something distinctly new. He shows real sympathy for Mann's work—its grandeurs, sorrows, sly wit. He also has sympathy for the man. While the others are satisfied with an exterior coldness, this one wants to find the author's heart.
Heilbut's lively, breezy book—not so much a biography as a free-ranging thematic essay—will be controversial for its insistent concentration on sexuality. Mann is presented, more or less, as a homosexual author of homoerotic fiction. Imputations of any sort of homosexuality upon Thomas Mann still pique some readers, who either dismiss the biographical evidence or activate a nostrum about sex having nothing to do with literature. Mann himself thought otherwise; he liked to quote Nietzsche to the effect that "the degree and kind of a man's sexuality reach to the highest peaks of his intellect." Sexuality is not at the center of Thomas Mann's work, but it is near the center, and it deserves a more accurate and knowing treatment than it has received in the past. The more we discover about this Sphinxlike writer, the more tricks and wonders we find in his gloriously egotistical prose.
Born in Lübeck, into a wealthy merchant family, Mann received a rigorous Prussian schooling but was otherwise left to his own indolent devices. After his father, the austere Senator Mann, fell prematurely dead, Thomas moved with his mother to the gilded city of Munich. The young writer savored Munich's decadent milieu, but also kept himself aloof. In "Buddenbrooks," he told the story of his family as a degeneration unto death. In short stories, he wrote of aesthetes, cripples, religious madmen, women with crushes on mediocre beauties. His most memorable early creations were boys: Hanno Buddenbrook, the end of the family line; Tonio Kröger, tagging behind his handsome, stupid friend, commuting desire into literature. The style blended archness and directness to striking effect:
Tonio was walking in silence. He was suffering. He had drawn his rather slanting brows together and rounded his lips as if to whistle, and was gazing into vacancy with his head tilted to one side. This attitude and facial expression were characteristic of him....The fact was that Tonio loved Hans Hansen, and had already suffered a great deal on his account.
Mann's impassive and tender sides had begun their slow dance.
It has long been known that Hans Hansen is a replica of Armin Martens, Mann's first love. His other homoerotic involvements are the slender emotional thread of Heilbut's narrative. There was a second boy in school, who inspired Hans Castorp's unforgotten adolescent crush in "The Magic Mountain." At age 24, Mann met an attractive, insubstantial violinist named Paul Ehrenberg, whose friendship he afterward called "that central experience of my heart." Shattered by this inept affair, he escaped into marriage. Except for a famous episode on a beach in Venice, his deeper desires seem to have smoldered until his fifty-third year, when he fell in love with the 17-year-old Klaus Heuser. Finally, at the age of 75, Mann took a liking to a young waiter in a Zurich hotel and immortalized him in "Felix Krull." When the diaries drenched in yearning for this person appeared a few years ago, German reporters tracked him down and found him working at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. The ageing hotelier became a minor celebrity in Germany and appeared on television.
Mann's pantheon of average boys—what he impishly called a "gallery which no 'literary history' will report"—loomed large in his consciousness. There is, however, no evidence that anything happened. Too eager to fill in the blanks, Heilbut argues that the Ehrenberg episode must have had a sexual component, since Mann later called it "one of my greatest love affairs." But Mann spoke similarly of the involvement with young Heuser, and in that case we have evidence neglected by Heilbut: the scholar Karl Werner Böhm sought out the former boy in 1986, found he had grown up gay, and learned that the "affair" had consisted of polite conversation. To the end of his life, Mann could not concretize gay sex. (He enjoyed Gore Vidal's "The City and the Pillar," but wrote ingenuously in his diary: "How can one sleep with men?") Heilbut also has trouble reconciling the boy-episodes with Mann's 50-year marriage to Katia Pringsheim. To have fathered six children was, perhaps, above and beyond the call of duty.
Then was Mann's art a form of sublimation, a deflection of desire? No. Sublimation suggests that sexuality is suppressed or transformed. Mann channeled his unrequited longings for young men into stories about unrequited longings for young men. In "Death in Venice," he transcribed his own "emotional adventure": Gustav von Aschenbach, an eminent author whose curriculum vitae is stocked with Mann's abandoned projects, looks at a beautiful Polish boy on the beach, exactly as the creator did on a 1911 vacation. "Nothing was invented," Mann later said—except, of course, that Aschenbach has no family in tow and winds up dead. Mann intended to pay ironic tribute to the sort of half-concealed, hyper-aestheticized boy-love celebrated by cultish poets like August von Platen and Stefan George. Listen to Mann's impossibly arch narrator recommending literary discretion as Aschenbach composes a "choice piece of prose" within sight of the honey-locked boy: "It is just as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an artist's inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them, and the excellence of the writing would be of no avail." This elegant formula mocks itself to death Mann exposes the secret sources not only of Aschenbach's work but also of his own.
Humorless variations on that cosmically laughing sentence have appeared in a great many critical glosses of "Death in Venice." We are told that Mann's homosexual impulses, if they did indeed exist, disappeared into the fabric of his writing. Such are the dangers of the ironist's trade: things can be taken at face value. Mann also left himself open to the more plausible suggestion that "Death in Venice" was a condemnation of dirty love, with disease and death as the pervert's reward. At first reading, the terrible swiftness of Aschenbach's demise does feel like the swish of a moralistic guillotine. The fact is that creeping death operates as a general formal principle in Mann's writing. Here, as the translator David Luke points out, the fall begins not when Aschenbach first thinks about the boy but when he says nothing to him, fails to warn him of a cholera epidemic. Which is not to say that the story wishes Aschenbach had put his paws on young Tadzio: it has him die at the moment he rises to follow. Defying all modern canons of healthy sexuality, Mann advocated absolute physical repression and endless public fantasy. He was a masterful innocent, as pure as the driving snow.
"Death in Venice" achieved sensational success on the eve of World War I. As the soldiers went off to war, they all had the story nestled in their knapsacks, or so Mann liked to think. Boisterous pro-war pamphlets followed from the same pen. The most provocative argument in the Heilbut book is that Mann's turn toward militant conservatism and subsequent liberal reversal cannot be understood apart from his struggle to find a fuller expression of his sexuality. His first solution was to vent his desire in the form of an enthusiasm for German might and for the fair-haired, blue-eyed soldiery who embodied it. The tone of cleansing rage that had hummed throughout his youthful writing reached a fortissimo in his major wartime work, the wild internecine polemic "Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man"; with it came a new vocabulary celebrating "voluptuous emotions, high-minded comradeship, heartfelt piousness, and other things we do not know about." In the diaries, he called the "Reflections" an "expression of my sexual inversion."
After intense confusion—he would welcome communism one day, embrace proto-fascism the next—he came forth with his astounding 1922 speech in praise of the Republic. The text has never been fully accessible to English readers; Lowe-Porter's translation bowdlerized it. Heilbut points out that the climax of Mann's argument for liberal democracy is a paean to peaceable homoeroticism, inspired by Whitman: "I will dare, in this connection, which still remains a political connection, to discuss—with all respect for your sensitivity—a topic that has been implicit in my last words. I mean the zone of Eros in which the generally accepted law of sexual polarity proves to be invalid, and in which like with like, whether mature masculinity and adoring youth, joined in a dream of themselves as gods, or young males drawn to their own mirror image, are bound in a passionate community." It doesn't stop there: Mann praises Whitman's "all-embracing kingdom of phallic holiness, abounding phallic ardor." As politics, it is completely daft; he might as well have been reciting a Dada manifesto. But the bravery amazes. The Herr Doktor dreams aloud.
Throughout the 1920's, Mann probed the outer limits of his natural reserve. He wrote a tribute to the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who was working for the repeal of Paragraph 175, Germany's anti-gay ordnance. His diaries are enlivened by thumbnail sketches of shirtless gardeners, smiling soldiers in trains, and, embarrassingly, his own teenage son Klaus. "The Magic Mountain" makes many interesting swerves in its later chapters, not least the scene in which Hans Castorp listens to a recording of Schubert's "Der Lindenbaum" and receives intimations of a Whitmanesque "word of love" resting on his dead cousin's lips. There is also a remarkable essay on Count Platen, the 19th-century lyric poet remembered chiefly as a victim of Heinrich Heine's lethal wit. Mann defends the lovelorn aristocrat in forthright, self-conscious terms:
...Out of ignorance, out of a discretion grown obsolete, literary history has very foolishly tried to talk its way around the fundamental and decisive fact of Platen's existence: his exclusively homoerotic disposition....He himself recognized this most profound of his impulses, and then again did not recognize it. He suggests it, in the form of a pious devotion to the beautiful, artistic purity, artistic consecration before higher things, even in love. But this half-understanding, this inability to see that his love was not something higher but instead a love like anyone else's, albeit with smaller prospects for happiness in his own time—this misunderstanding made him aggrieved, terribly bitter over the contempt and maltreatment that his glowing devotions met at nearly every turn; and his bitterness manifestly contributed to his falling-out with Germany and everything German, driving him toward exile and lonely death.
Three years before the fact, Mann foreshadows his own breakup with the Germans.
Heilbut persuasively argues that Mann's bizarre erotic democracy was, in fact, an attempt to fashion a liberal alternative to the longbow-and-loincloth politics practiced by elements of the Nazi movement. He might have extended his analysis to Mann's final major statement as a German citizen, which carried the oblique title "The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner." Delivered as a lecture inside and outside Germany in 1933, this long essay dared to present Hitler's favorite composer as, variously, a decadent, a dilettante, and a Kulturbolschewist. In one astonishing passage, Wagner is shown at work in his study, ensconced in a plush, warm, almost onanistic environment. Mann first paints a subtle scene of sublimation laid bare, then rudely assaults the Nazi kitsch to which the composer's ambiguous creations have been reduced: "The brilliant satin robes are the luxury in which [Wagner] sits down to work in the mornings, to perform his bitter and onerous task. Decked out in these, he acquires the 'mood of artistic sensuality' he needs in order to summon up the world of ancient Nordic heroes and the sublime symbolism of nature, to fashion the young, golden-locked hero forging the sword of victory on the anvil while the sparks fly—scenes and images that cause the hearts of German youth to swell with lofty feelings of manly pride." Such lascivious sarcasm only added to the Nazis's hatred of Mann. The Wagner lecture tour turned into exile.
Once Mann left Germany, his sexual politics ceased. At first, he was paralyzed with fear; the loss of a German readership seemed like the end of the world. When volumes of his diaries temporarily went astray, he imagined in horror what Goebbels might do with them. In American exile, he stuck to a simpler anti-fascist line; college kids weren't ready for sensual socialism. But the erotic content of his fiction intensified. His Biblical epic on the theme of Joseph obsessively celebrates male beauty, and the hundreds of pages devoted to Potiphar's Wife are his greatest and gentlest portrait of hapless passion. "Doktor Faustus" contains his first and only depiction of an affair between two grown men, with notebooks from the era of Paul Ehrenberg supplying agonized detail. The later diaries show Mann ever more liberally uninhibited: he flirts with elevator attendants ("Flirt mit dem Lift boy"), reads gay fiction ("The love-play between Jim and Bob is quite wonderful"), calls Richard Nixon "evil." He debates whether the sexual revelations should stand: "Why am I writing this? To destroy it all in good time before I die? Or do I want the world to know me? I believe it knows me already, at least some experts do, more of me than is admitted."
The strength of Heilbut's book can be measured next to the misadventures of other biographers in the Zone der Erotik. Hayman portrays Mann as a remote, incestuous father who helped precipitate his son Klaus's homosexuality, drug addiction, and suicide. This psychologically fanciful scenario overlooks the prevalence of suicide in the Mann family tree and Klaus's whole European generation. Prater mumbles about the "mild aberrations of the bourgeois family-man"—if these be mild, the bourgeoisie is in pretty queer shape. Yet it is not right to say, as Heilbut essentially does, that Mann was a homosexual who found fulfillment in liberalism. Contemporary-minded to fault, Heilbut simplistically discerns a sexual-political passage from darkness into light. For example, Mann wrote two fascinating letters in 1920 to the young gay poet Carl Maria Weber, explicating "Death in Venice." Heilbut presents this material as a denial of the story's homosexual content, then juxtaposes the 1922 speech as its liberal apotheosis. But he misconstrues some thorny syntax: Mann in fact states that the world of homosexual feeling is "conditionally"—or, in the second letter, "almost unreservedly"—accessible to him, rather than "scarcely" accessible. These cryptograms are no more or less lucid than anything before or after. There was no breakthrough, no ecce homo.
Mann played games with the obvious; he was an incorrigible tease. If we call him ambiguous, as critics often do, we should be clear about exactly what we mean. When he seems to to shy away from telling the whole truth, he is working hardest at bringing the truth to life. Great storytellers enthrall their listeners by playing close to the vest. Mann, among the very greatest of storytellers, always begins in an innocuous, convivial tone: Grandpapa remembers a time long ago. His incessant hesitations—"almost," "scarcely," "so to speak," "in a certain sense"—are the quiet touches by which his voice acquires personality on the page. They are creases in the impassive exterior, the beginnings of a smile, or a scream. The reader is suddenly spooked by a quick increase in tension, a silent entry of emotion. Desire, an unfailing source of tension and emotion, is the more present for not being spoken straight out. Mann revealed himself most when he wrote that Platen's traditional literary forms prevented full disclosure.
His stories are always stories of love, what Whitman called the sweet hell within. He lets his readers see, if they wish to see, the degree and kind of his love. But he does not put a name to it—perhaps because it has never belonged to him, he thinks he has no honest right to it. Or perhaps because the names look weak next to the grandeur of his feelings, arrogantly set out before the world. In the words of "The Magic Mountain," he has already achieved "perfect clarity in ambiguity": "Love is always simply itself, both as a subtle affirmation of life and as the highest passion; love is our sympathy with organic life, the touchingly lustful embrace of what is destined to decay....In God's good name, leave the meaning of love unresolved!" It must be unresolved, so it can be learned again, in the pages of his books.