Meeting the Master of Metamorphosis

Thomas Mann: Lotte in Weimar ISBN 978-3-596-90402-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A curious thing happened to me lately. I was half-way through this book and I felt reluctant to share it with you. Bizarre. That’s not me. The book had cast a very special spell upon me, its language, the absence of any action, the long descriptions, the multi-layered message – I felt like keeping it all to myself. I had the feeling that me diving into this book was something too intimate to be shared. Very bizarre.

My reluctance however vaporized later, so here we are for another review of one more novel by the German writer and Nobel prize laureate Thomas Mann. I love Franz Kafka for some reasons and I love Thomas Mann for very different reasons. And of course I love Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that goes without saying. The nmain idea of the novel is to portray Goethe i his many facets and his many apparent contradictions.

Different witnesses testify about the aged writer in intimate conversations with Lotte, Goethe’s first love, the woman who inspired his novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. Lotte, almost as old as Goethe, has come to Weimar to see the man who immortalized her, and her visit causes a sensation in the little town. The inhabitants venerate the master of German literature, and everybody wants to see the woman who inspired Goethe’s fictional Lotte. Each of those who gain access to Lotte sees the writer through a different lens, and their testimony gives the real Lotte a way to gauge her visitors and prepare for the meeting with Goethe, a meeting that she has been looking for, a meeting she is apprehensive of at the same time.

In these conversations, Thomas Mann picks up a couple of subjects he has written about in other works. One is the German-French antagonism in politics and aesthetics, that soured the relations between the two countries during the 19th century. It reflected among others a presumed difference in national characters and in types of morality, the subject that permeates Mann’s essay “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man“. Mann, through the words and thoughts of Goethe himself, also attacks the Romantic Zeitgeist of the first half of the 19th century in Germany, a time when writers, painters and musicians were rebelling against the ideals of the Weimar Classic era and against Goethe’s generation.

Mann portrays Goethe through several levels of conflicts: personal, social, artistic and political. What I find remarkable is Mann’s talent in creating the illusion of reporting from the 19th century in the language of Goethe’s time. It may appear a little cumbersome, but it gives the novel a singular authenticity. It is no longer Mann telling the story, the characters themselves seem to be reporting live from the Weimar of 1816 and push the story forward. As I said, there is hardly any real action, but Mann was a clever story-teller creating tension, stretching the patience of the reader to the limit and beginning a new chapter with a new angle on Goethe just at the right time. Wonderful!

Goethe appears as a tyrant in personal affairs and as a political man: He doesn’t think too much about the freedom of the press, he appears as a law-and-order proponent, and his admiration for Napoleon even after the latter’s fall knows no bounds. He is open to flattery by the rulers, seems to look down on women, he is easily seduced by the comfort a public office provides and strictly opposed to any revolutionary ideas of the youth. In Mann’s portray, Goethe is shown as a politically conservative and anti-democratic person while asking at the same time for a high degree of tolerance for his own liberal lifestyle and the freedom of his own literary and scientific ambitions.

In his own introspection, Goethe justifies his desire to live, to enjoy, to create as the only way to transcend death – physical, moral and spiritual death. This end seems to justify any means, the exhibition of other people’s intimacies in literary works included. The great master also touches a highly sensitive subject: Germany’s identity. Goethe’s distance to Germany mirrors Mann’s distance to his home country. They both do not really trust their contemporaries. Goethe was wary of the young Romantic revolutionaries, while Mann abhorred the Nazis who had taken over the country and forced him to flee. The big question in 1816 and in 1939, when “Lotte on Weimar” was published, was: Who can legitimately claim to represent Germany? And who may legitimately claim to represent Germany today? The embattled chancellor Angela Merkel? The populistic nationalists from the AfD-party? Mann’s novel proves to be unexpected food for thought!

There are a few more surprises in this novel, which I will not reveal as I do not want to spoil your reading pleasure. Goethe and Lotte first meet in a stiff and semi-public context, seen through the eyes of Lotte, and a second time in a more intimate context. Mann demonstrates his excellence as narrator here. The emotional showdown between the two characters is sublime, a witty conclusion, thrilling to read, revealing Mann’s deep affection for the fate of two imagined human beings with their contradictions, their faults, fears and sacrifices. “Emotions are everything that is”, Goethe at some point confesses, and their metamorphosis is his own personal obsession.

Both Thomas Mann and the Romantic composer Robert Schumann were big fans of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Schumann composed an overture inspired by Goethe’s epic poem “Hermann and Dorothea”:

Schumann, Heroism and the Fate of Refugees

Voltaire and the Value of His Parables

Voltaire contes

Voltaire: Romans et contes. ISBN 978-2-070-10961-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Having explored the life of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, I was a curious about the man’s works, and since I am busy reading two other French poets, I decided to start with Voltaire’s novels. After all one should not judge people by their appearance or life style, but by their works. The present collection features among many others the three major parables “Micromégas”, “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme”. Faint memories from my time at school made the title “Candide” seem familiar – so much for the value of my French literature classes.

The best I can say about Voltaire’s novels is that the intention of the author is clear: to transport a message about tolerance, freedom of speech, a fair society and rational judgment. A message against idolatry, superstition, religious dogmatism and tyranny. Unfortunately, Voltaire’s narrative style has not stood the test of the time in my opinion. As with Rabelais, that I have covered in an earlier post, the pompous language and the repetitive pattern of the novels did not speak to me. I found them tiresome and boring.

I understand that Voltaire was under several constraints: the fashion of the day, his century’s ideas of aesthetics and censure. And for the readers of the 18th century, his language and his narrative style were just perfect. His books sold well, his theatre pieces were performed a lot, at least in those places were Voltaire had not made himself too many influential enemies. But what is the value of his novels today? And has Voltaire’s narrative style not become an obstacle to the transmission of his message?

For experts on French literature, Voltaire’s novels “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme” are memorials of the French Enlightenment, of a glorious cultural past. They will revel in it and condemn in a very un-Voltairian way those who dare have another opinion. For the common reader of today, I suppose Voltaire’s parables are a less thrilling experience, with the exception perhaps of those parts that show Voltaire’s cruel sense of humour and his hate for zealots. In “Candide” – please note the reference to optimism in the full title – the hero kills two Catholic priests and a “choleric Jew” over the span of a few pages.

From a philosophical point of view, Voltaire’s subjects of fate, the opposition of free will and necessity is interesting. The German philosopher Leibniz had put forward the idea that God being a perfect being could only have created a perfect world. Leibniz also thought that every effect has a necessary cause, ruling out randomness or the idea that life as such could be absurd, meaning that Man would need to give his life a meaning.

Voltaire violently attacked the idea of the best possible world as he saw a world full of misery, intrigue and fighting. How could such a world be perfect? Where does it leave Man’s freedom? In “Zadig”, Voltaire shows how human disasters can reveal a positive effect, hidden to the common mortal, but visible to those who believe. The way Voltaire narrates the adventures of his (anti-)hero Zadig makes it however clear that he mocks any such argument.

Candide, the hero who lend the novel his name, is an eager debater and thinker. He survives countless adventures that demonstrate how cruel life on earth is, showing that there is plenty of meaningless suffering (i.e. slavery), episodes that make him openly question Leibniz’ postulates. His way out: “Allons cultiver notre jardin!” Let’s go gardening! Candide’s concluding words can be interpreted in two ways. In a literal way, Candide actually wants to work in his newly acquired garden and achieve personal happiness through manual labour – working heard without reasoning or debating. In a more figurative way Voltaire extolls us to deal with present-day problems, making this planet a better place on the basis of rationality.

Whatever one may think about the form of Voltaire’s novels, he puts forward a key question that may occupy our minds today just as it occupied Voltaire’s mind: To what degree is Man truly free? He may no longer suffer under the tyrannical policy of a king or the oppression of religion, but is he free? The many down-sides of a globalized economy, the manipulative power of social media, the fast degrading of our environment put Man’s freedom to control his destiny to a severe test. No, we are not living in a perfect world, and we should not ignore the many challenges humanity faces or try to explain them away. And Voltaire’s answer is still valid: to fight for a better world on the basis of sound and fair judgment.

François Couperin, French grandmaster of the harpsichord and composer of the French Royal Court under Louis XIV, was a contemporary of Voltaire. And you may judge yourself whether Couperin’s piece “Le Parnasse, ou l’Apothéose de Corelli” has stood the test of the time better than Voltaire’s language:

Italian Infiltrators at the Court of Versailles

Warning – Children Are Liable for Their Parents!

John Lanchester: The Wall ISBN 978-0-571-29872-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ You are familiar with the feeling: You did something wrong, you begged for pardon, pardon was granted, but the feeling of guilt lingers on, the remorse remains palpable, a barrier between you and the other. “The Wall” is about guilt and it is about us and them. Us, well, that’s us, the present generation. Them, that’s our children, people like Josef Kavanagh and Hifa. What separates us, is the fact that we were born before an irreversible climate catastrophe occurred – the one we did not prevent – while they were born after “the Change” and into a world that is not necessarily worth living in.

For Kavanagh, us refers to the inhabitants of Great Britain, living behind a heavily guarded wall built all along the coastline to protect the country from a rising sea level and refugees fleeing their submerged home countries – them. Or as they are euphemistically called in the novel: the Others. Kavanagh and Hifa are Defenders, young people doing their duty on the wall, watching out for refugees that might approach the wall from the seaside and shooting them. Kavanagh is perfectly aware that if a refugee will come through on his watch, he will be put to sea and no longer belong to what he used to call “us”, but become one of “them”.

“The Wall” is about guilt and responsibility. Lanchester’s novel is a tough one. It pitches us against our children or rather it shows us how our present choices will pitch us against our children. The moral dilemma he sketches strongly resonates with my remorse for not doing enough against climate change, which may lead to a situation where our society will kill less fortunate people so that we may live. And I have to ask myself how I will justify my lack of action in ten or 20 years when I will be challenged by my daughter. A bit like our parents may have challenged our grand-parents by asking why they hadn’t prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The wall, as a construction, isn’t perfect, neither are the people defending it. First of all, there are not enough Defenders. After the Change the incentive to reproduce has dramatically sunk. Furthermore there are traitors among the Defenders, siding with the Others. Finally, there are so many Others, many more than there are Defenders. Courage, good planning, luck, desperation – all play a part when a refugee manages to get across the wall, and as Lanchester, says “Others who get over the Wall have to choose between being euthanised, becoming Help or being put back to sea”.

Help. Help are everywhere and do the daily chores for those who are entitled to a little luxury. Help have no names, no feelings and hardly any rights. They are an anonymous mass, owned by the British government, with their only raison d’être to serve as modern slaves in all but name.

The world Lanchester shows us is a gruesome dystopia and fascinating at the same time. An intellectual experiment masterfully narrated and leading to painfully interesting ethical reflections. The world after the Change being what it is, Kavanagh reflects his situation throughout the novel and his personality evolves with each new turning point of the novel.

Exposed to solitude, monotony and bad weather while mounting the guard, his only thought is to get away from the wall as soon as possible. When his squad enjoys a well-deserved rest, it begins to dawn on him that after his two years on the wall, he has nowhere to go to. He harbours ambitious, but vague dreams, at the same time he enjoys the comradeship among the Defenders.

Once Kavanagh has experienced a life-or-death moment, his personal life takes a new trajectory, which leads to the question of responsibility turned upside-down. What kind of responsibility does Kavanagh have towards the generation following his own? Finally betrayal kicks in, and Kavanagh’s ethical considerations become absurd. In a violent society where the “greater good” is more important than basic rights, life is reduced to physical and mental survival. Or so it would seem.

Taken together, all this should be enough to wet your appetite for novel with an exciting plot. I like Lanchaster’s style, and his familiarity with the weather on the British Isles shows the multiple ways to describe cold and wet and windy. I loved that since I experienced the combination of cold and wet and windy myself many times, and yes, there are many different types of cold and wet and windy. And since the weather is what it is, here or on the wall, I recommend a cup of tea and some lovely music from an Other who made it to London before the wall had been built. In the second half of the 18th century, Jacob Kirkman wrote his lovely Sonata I in A Major:

Chamber music from a continental immigrant

Following the Mendelssohn Family

Diane Meur: La carte des Mendelssohn ISBN 978-2-253-06894-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Being an author is no trivial thing. When I was young, very young, I had the fantasy of becoming such an author. I believed I had a message and I wanted to write a book about it. I quickly realized my message was trivial – something about youth and rebellion – and once I had understood how much patience is required to research source material, to organize the work and to actually write a book, I was dissuaded to write anything exceeding in length my MA thesis to finish my studies.

Unlike me, Diane Meur didn’t back away from the challenge. She researched the ups and downs of the lives of the Mendelssohn family, starting with the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and following a millions streams flowing from that genealogical source. She got confused by all the material as one could have predicted, she dropped the project, took it up again, drifted away from the subject and came back – and in the end she wrote a lovely book less about the Mendelssohn family and much more about her discovery of the Mendelssohn family, allowing every now and then for a detour, narrating her emotions, her daydreams, her philosophical musings.

Experts on the Mendelssohn family will not discover much new information, but any reader interested in a non-scientific exploration of the life of Mendelssohn the Philosopher, Mendelssohn the Composer, Mendelssohn the Jew turned Protestant turned Catholic, Mendelssohn the Composer’s Sister, Mendelssohn the Banker etc. will find Meur’s book both informative and entertaining. A good read, a good gift too. Thank you, dad!

And as you may expect, there will be no book review without a music suggestion. And since we had Fanny Mendelssohn now twice in a short time on that other blog of mine, I will honour today Felix with his Symphony No. 5 in A minor (Op. 56) “Scottish”:

Soul-searching far, far away from home

On Propaganda, Brainwashing and Other Forms of Manipulation

BNWR combo

Aldous Huxley: Brave new World/Brave New World Revisited ISBN 978-009951847-1/ 978-009945823-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ “Propaganda in favour of action dictated by the impulses that are below self-interest, offers false, garbled or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign and domestic scapegoats, and by the cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that […] the most cynical kind of realpolitik becomes a matter of religious principle and patriotic duty.” Does this sound familiar to you?

It was written in 1956 under the impression of Stalin and Hitler’s success in rallying and manipulating the masses on the one hand, and the excessive consumerism of the US society on the other hand. The author was Aldous Huxley, the mind and hand behind the dystopian novel “Brave new World” and a collection of related essays under the title “Brave New World Revisited.” In “Brave New World revisited”, Huxley devotes two chapters to propaganda, the good and the bad propaganda, and furthermore offers interesting ideas about the over-population of the world, brainwashing, chemical alterations of the mind and other forms of willful manipulation.

“Brave New World” itself needs no recommendation. The novel, published in 1932, features on the curriculum of most English classes and has lost none of its attraction. It portrays a society with custom made humans, genetically pre-determined to do certain tasks, and the liberty to think individually replaced by the liberty to consume without limits and to drop out of reality by taking drugs. I read the novel in high school with fascination, although I didn’t fully understand it, and I reread it a few months ago. This time I devoured it with a sense of exhilaration, rediscovering many angles I had forgotten about. I was overwhelmed by Huxley’s tremendous foresight and his talent as a writer.

I was even more surprised by the depth of his reflexions in “Brave New World Revisited”. As with Karl Marx, it is funny to identify the points where Huxley was wrong in his predictions (cf. the chapter on over-population). It is much less funny to find out, that he was right in many instances and anticipated the effects of propaganda when disseminated  through social networks, of changes in behaviour through indoctrination and a reward policy for compliant behaviour. Every page is fascinating in a frightening way.

“Brave New World Revisited” furthermore exposes how modern science – sociology and psychology mainly – can quickly become useful tools of dictators to brainwash the individual. Extended periods of stress make men succeptible to believe in values opposed to those he used to believe – Pavlov’s theories at work. Huxley explains here the scientific background of the conditioning of the human race as it happens both in “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s 1984. It’s brutal.

The lines quoted at the beginning of these posts obviously lead to reflect President Trump’s election campaign and the strategy of the Brexiteers to manipulate the UK referendum to leave the European Union. Or the genocide in Rwanda, greatly favoured by the insidious hate-speech broadcasted by “Radio Milles Collines”. Or the videos shared by Daech. Or the TV station “Russia Today”, mxing facts and fiction to confuse the audience.

Huxley’s yardstick of efficient “bad” propaganda is Joseph Goebbels for under him, the Nazis perfected this black art like no one else. Today, our societies are under threat again. Not by some foreign countries, terrorists or immigrants, no, they are being threatened by our own politicians, by complying social networks and by millions of users tagging along. Passivity is no option, for the numbers are against us who defend truth, equality, the rule of law, plurality and democracy. It is time to stand up.

The fascination of horror – that was one of the ideas that flicked up when I read “Brave New World” and “Brave New World Revisited”. At the time I often listened to a piece written by Bela Bartok, written during World War I, the Piano Quartet No. 2:

A Piano Quartet Ressurected from the Archives