Commentary Magazine

The Ironic German, by Erich Heller; Last Essays, by Thomas Mann

The More-Than-German Mann

The Ironic German.
By Erich Heller.
Little, Brown. 298 pp. $6.00.

Last Essays.
By Thomas Mann.
Knopf. 211 pp. $4.50.


If novelists are in some degree historians, Thomas Mann was the great historian of the present crisis in Western culture. He made a magnificent spectacle out of what has since become a dreary and desperate routine. Between the grim facts of disease and death, on the one hand, and the glories of art and philosophy, on the other, he discovered a metaphysical affinity. For Mann and his early readers there was a sort of beauty in the contemplation of this affinity. It lent a grandeur to the slow disintegration of the Buddenbrooks’, the rapid fall of Aschenbach in Death in Venice, the up-and-down career of Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain. Today, when the pressure of those grim facts, and of the whole ever-worsening crisis, seems to outweigh any current achievements in art and philosophy, Mann’s metaphysics are unconvincing, a form of “soul butter” as Huckleberry Finn would say.

Indeed, despite all his concern with decadence, there was in Thomas Mann an old-fashioned interest in soul cures; an old-fashioned art went with it. The cure was firmly implied in the story, even when it didn’t work for the hero in question. The cure consisted partly in an exposure to new experience, such as falling ill, falling in love, and traveling; partly in a submission to Socratic procedures: scarcely a novel or tale of Mann’s is without some simulacrum of a Socratic dialogue in the course of which the hero’s cherished ideas are subjected to intensive scrutiny by himself and others. The unexamined life is not worth living.

Mann’s faith in the reality of ideas was profound. So was his genius for seeing ideas written large and grand, or small and droll, in the drama of human character, of manners, and of history. The peculiar attraction of his work—for a past generation which did find it attractive—lay in the relation of its drama to its ideas, its surface to its interior. The surface teems with anecdote: no modern novelist hate given us more characters, happenings, and scenes that have the immediate charm of first-rate anecdote; while the interior is alive with dim but active intellectual presences: Spirit and Nature, Democracy and Aristocracy, North and South, and so on. The art of Mann consisted in fusing the surface with the interior, in thoroughly crystallizing the anecdotes into universal parables.

Nowadays it is often objected that all this is overdone in Mann’s work. The crystallizing process is too thorough, the symbolism employed to accomplish it too obtrusive, the whole art of the man too surgically expert and complacently omniscient. To be sure, similar objections were heard even in the heyday of his reputation. There was always some doubt as to the ultimate creative intensity of his mind as compared with his greatest contemporaries in the novel. To go from Mann to Joyce or Proust or Kafka was, one said, like passing through the frame into the picture, or exchanging the doctor’s office for the confessional. For what they are worth, these distinctions make sense now as they did in the past; and Mann has been under the further disadvantage that his complex German did not go into very acceptable English, so that he has exerted far less influence than Joyce or Proust or Kafka on writing in this country. He has been the intelligent reader’s novelist rather than the novelist’s novelist.



The objections to Mann’s work have become sharper in recent years. For beyond the merely technical criticisms lies a changed point of view upon literature and life—a change begotten, evidently, not by any lessening of the crisis in culture but by its vastly greater gravity. Mann’s faith in ideas, his passion for explanations, have given way to a sort of cult of moral spontaneity, in life as in literature. The examined life is not worth living.

It takes a really free-spirited critic to rehabilitate a dated classic. Mann is such a classic now and Mark Van Doren is such a critic; and Mr. Van Doren’s small recent book on Joseph and His Brothers showed what could come of an encounter between such a pair. Where most critics have been engulfed by Mann’s own omnivorous critical intelligence, Van Doren remains serenely visible. Between the German novelist with his elegant complexity and the American critic with his elegant simplicity there is a dramatic half-meeting of minds. It takes place, moreover, on Van Doren’s chosen ground: the theory and practice of comedy. Thus one critic has made this dated classic his own, just as others may in time make him theirs.

Here, meanwhile, are two further books on the subject, one about Mann, the other by him. Erich Heller’s The Ironic German is a study of Mann’s mind and work; and it has the immediate purpose, one gathers, of refurbishing Mann’s image in the public mind. Mann’s Last Essays, containing four literary portraits written during his later years, is a very personal and quite moving volume full of what appear to be tacit reflections on Mann’s image as it came to exist in his own mind.

Anyone who is already familiar with Mann’s work will find comfort and instruction in The Ironic German. Mr. Heller’s account of the novelist’s intellectual composition and affinities is thorough; his defense of Mann in the dialogue which forms his chapter on The Magic Mountain is spirited; his analyses of the major works are excellent even though a little too lengthy and tortuous. The point of view on Mann is not, however, very fresh or even very clear and well sustained. Unlike Mr. Van Doren, Mr. Heller does tend to fall victim to Mann’s omnivorous mind, or at least to the similarities between their minds.

For one thing, Mr. Heller’s title seems unfortunate, almost a caricature. The “ironic” suggests a pose rather than a man and the “German” fastens on a world artist the fatality of race. In part the book itself corrects the first of these impressions, showing that Mann’s irony served a “moral intelligence” of the first order. Yet Mr. Heller is ultimately a little uncomfortable with the irony and with its philosophic basis. By way of gently suggesting Mann’s supposed limitations, he cites Kierkegaard and his famous hierarchy of Being. Mann’s early hero Tonio Kröger, and by implication Mann himself, are said to have occupied “that border-region between the aesthetic and the ethical state” which lies considerably below the ultimate or religious state. But anybody can cite Kierkegaard and nowadays almost everybody does. The question is whether Kierkegaard is relevant to Mann, an uncompromising theist to an uncompromising humanist.

Then there is the difficulty of Mann’s Germanism. Given Mr. Heller’s background as a self-exiled man of Middle European origins, and his position as an authority on German literature and thought, it is natural that he should see Mann largely in relation to their common traditions. And Mr. Heller undoubtedly contributes a great deal of subtly reasoned evidence to the study of Mann’s antecedents. Yet Mann’s conscious debt to, his veritable identification with, such figures as Goethe, Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Nietzsche, are explored in The Ironic German to the point where one sometimes feels that one is participating in a mystery rather than reading about a mere novelist.

Concerning Mann’s idea of the “burgher,” Mr. Heller characteristically writes: “It seems an elusive but powerful organism capable of absorbing into its indefinitely expansive system a vast variety of incommensurable things: a measure of Christian piety and a measure of Will to Power, Goethe’s doctrine of resignation and Nietzsche’s dithyrambic excesses, Stifter’s untempestuous ideal and Wagner’s musical demon, Schopenhauer’s will to saintliness and Bismarck’s Realpolitik . . .” Thus are Mann’s many ghostly forebears summoned by Mr. Heller from their widely scattered graves. No wonder he concludes that Mann practiced a sort of “imitatio mystica” of the dead, hoping thus to leave behind “a body of work which could truly claim to be the parodistic résumé of German literary history.”

But true as this may be, does it account for the living charm and variety of Mann’s work? Are not his German pieties a part of his private history, as distinguished from whatever it was in him which made him a great novelist of modern experience? And is it not just as a great novelist of modern experience that his image needs to be refurbished?

The last essays evoke a less past-haunted Thomas Mann than we sometimes get from The Ironic German, despite its excellence in other respects. And although three of Mann’s subjects in this book were German—they are Schiller, Goethe, and Nietzsche; the fourth and most reverently portrayed is Chekhov—the book recalls us to Mann’s character as the German become the “Good European.” Indeed, Nietzsche’s famous formula seems to have been invented just for him, in this final phase as in most of his writing since The Magic Mountain. The Last Essays also remind us of Mann’s old genius as an essayist, his way of combining his extraordinary powers of ideological analysis with his novelist’s gift of creating characters and telling stories.

But what lends a peculiar interest to these characters and stories is the extent to which they represent a sort of gentle inquisition on his own character, life, and work. For one thing he seems to change sides, writing very warmly about Schiller and Chekhov, two figures who were in many ways his opposite numbers, and writing rather less sympathetically of Goethe and Nietzsche, a pair with whom he had formerly identified himself quite closely. “In Germany greatness tends to a kind of hypertrophy,” he remarks in “Fantasy on Goethe,” the last of his several studies of that poet. And he goes on to show how Goethe “had in his majestic old age a good deal of this absolutism and personal imperialism,” and how “at his death there was to be heard not only the nymphs’ lament for great Pan, but a distinct ‘Whew’ of relief.” Nor does Mann spare us any of Nietzsche’s vulgarity and brutality in his brilliant but perhaps too immediately political reconsideration of that figure, “Nietzsche in the Light of Recent History.”

On the other hand, Schiller and Chekhov are praised for their relative humility and their steady devotion to principle. Where Nietzsche’s fatal illness is related not only to his triumphs as a thinker but to his megalomaniac excesses, Chekhov’s illness is said to have produced a “strange, skeptical and infinitely endearing modesty.” He was, Mann says, “too modest even for passion.” After all, Chekhov was a real doctor and knew too much about disease to glorify it as Nietzsche did and Mann after him. What Chekhov accomplished in the short story, a form that Mann says he himself scorned in his youth, is contrasted favorably with “works of monumental stature”—surely works like some of Mann’s own. And Chekhov’s narrative art is roundly declared to be “unsurpassed in European literature.” Yet, as Mann is at pains to show, Chekhov became a great artist more or less by accident: through the intervention of a forgotten Russian critic who saw promise in his early journalistic sketches. Here again there is an implied contrast, this time with Mann’s own conception of the artist as a historically and metaphysically predestined entity.



It is in his account of Chekhov’s ultimate beliefs, or lack of them, that the essay is most intimately revealing of the author’s state of mind. A thinker ought to answer the question “What is to be done?” Chekhov believed; yet he could not say what was to be done to improve conditions in Czarist Russia or ameliorate the human condition in general. He did not, however, take refuge in irony or dialectical exercises but ruefully sought, as he said, “just to depict life as it is, without taking one step further.” In other words, Chekhov avowed his uncertainties more clearly and humbly than Mann himself had ever done.

But it is not the self-criticism that matters so much in these essays as the emotion behind it. Despite his years, his fame, his achievement, Thomas Mann could still suffer, still reflect, still play Socrates to his own ideas. The Chekhov essay has distinct political implications, it is true; it was originally a lecture delivered in Communist East Germany. And if this accounts for some ambiguously phrased expressions of hope for the future of the Soviet state—Mann’s political sense was incorrigibly bad, first and last—it does not negate the passion behind the hope. Like Chekhov, Mann lived to be greatly tried by personal ordeals, fearfully depressed by the state of the world; and both men sought relief in visions of a “perhaps imminent day when life will be bright and joyful as a peaceful Sunday morning.” The words are Chekhov’s but the dream is both Chekhov’s and Mann’s. Thus a writer as enormously complex as Mann had always been, and as complacent in his greatness as he had sometimes seemed, was capable at last of visions and other simplicities! This strange fact underlies the Last Essays and gives them their peculiar preciousness. It also points to the more-than-German, the better-than-ironical, the magnificently human artist that remains to be rediscovered in Mann’s work as a whole.



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