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

Cross – Death – Tomb

Thomas Mann: Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (English title: Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man) ISBN 978-3-596-15052-6 ⭐️⭐️ As much as I like Thomas Mann’s novels like “The Magic Mountain”, “Tonio Kröger” and “Doctor Faustus”, his reflexions about World War I and Germany’s political role, published between 1918 and1920, appalled me. Mann, a faithful follower of Arthur Schopenauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, believed in the separation of politics and arts. In 1914 he argued that arts should stay away from day-to-day politics. He saw a fundamental opposition between “Geist” (mind) and “Macht” (might) and decried a perceived proliferation of politics into all aspects of human life, arts included. He would not use his undeniable talent as a writer to voice his opposition to the pending war.

Mann was supporting the war that he saw as part of a cultural struggle opposing Germany to the rest of Europe, a mindset he did not consider a political action and thus would not be a contradiction of his goal to remain an unpolitical observer of history unfolding. “Did the world look more beautiful before the war?”, he asks rhetorically, alluding to the class differences and the excesses of unrestrained capitalism in the late 19th century. “When it [the war] was young, when it started and blew away ‘peace’, wasn’t Germany much to the contrary beautiful during a holy moment?” War as a purification of corrupt societies – on both sides, France and Germany, intellectuals succumbed to that illusion. What a tragedy!

My German edition of “Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischenhas some 580 pages, the vast majority serving to a mystic and bombastic, at times polemic defense of German militarism in the name of the superiority of the German soul and the German culture. According to Mann, both the German soul and the German culture had to defend themselves against a perceived French-Italian-English cultural dominance and influence, exemplified by these countries’ emphasis on democracy, liberalism, human rights and pluralism. Mann instead promotes the unity of the German people, the Kaiser and the church with an emphasis on duty and Germany’s fundamental cultural difference from all other countries. He uses a formula directly borrowed from German Romanticism, obsessed by death wishes and heroism: Kreuz, Tod, Gruft – cross, death, tomb. The main inspiration of his ideas: Fyodor Dostoevsky – Nietzsche was impressed by Dostoevsky’s insight into the human soul – and of course Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a sworn enemy of French republicanism.

Germany’s alleged superiority

Mann’s credo is concisely explained in the central chapter “Against law and truth” – a direct answer to his brother Heinrich Mann, who opposed Germany’s war policy. Mann writes that a lasting peace in Europe can only be based “on the victory and the might of the supra-national people [of Germany], the people that holds the supreme universalist truth, the most accomplished cosmopolitan gift, the deepest sense of European responsibility.” Where Adolf Hitler some 20 later would emphasize the biological superiority of Germany, Mann uses the argument of cultural-philosophical superiority. Both are phantasms, both served to justify a European- and worldwide war. And Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda mastermind, would try to co-opt Mann as an ally until the latter’s emigration.

Mann claims his position about World War I “was necessary, logical, authentic and true, it was the result of my true being, my origin and education, of my nature and my culture, which cannot be completely mean, false, since they gave birth to two or three works that are good and will stay on…” I cannot be wrong now since my ideological framework allowed me to write a successful book – what kind of logic is that?

How could such an intelligent and well-educated writer fall for such nonsense? I probably underestimated Nietzsche’s attractiveness – I see his ideas as a curious historical footnote – since I have the benefit of hindsight, nevertheless it remains a mystery to me why Mann failed to see the purely geo-strategic dimension of World War I, and how the idea of a German cultural exceptionalism could obfuscate his mind to such a degree that he would rank cultural differences just as important as geo-strategic issues when it came to the reasons leading to the war.

No, I don’t like this book, and many times I was tempted to set it aside for ever. As a matter of fact I skipped several dozen pages, such as those where Mann makes fun of the use of chemical weapons against Germany’s ennemies. Nevertheless I kept going until the end, despite the ideas Mann propagates and despite Mann’s arrogant attitude. Yes, arrogant, since Mann portrays himself as the only one holding the truth and denigrates anyone who would dare question his “reflections”. Why did I persevere then? Because I think it is important to see how a brilliant mind can be led in error despite its good intentions.

Leaving the ivory tower – reluctantly

Thomas Mann switched sides a few years after he had published this collection of essays. In the chapter “Politics” he already hints at the possibility that he may change his attitude though he sees it as a possible “adaption” to the changing political and societal environment: “As far as I am concerned, I must understand that I need to absorb, learn, seek understanding, correct myself – but I can’t deny my true being and my education, I can’t pull out my roots and plant them elsewhere.”

Mann may be forgiven then, because he understood the artist’s duty well before the outbreak of World War II and left the unpolitical artist’s ivory tower. In 1930, three years before the Nazis came to power, he warned his fellow Germans in his “German Speech: An Appeal to Reason”. He called upon the Germans to vote for the Social-Democratic Party in the upcoming parliamentary elections and questioned whether it was compatible with the German spirit to “transform politics into an opiate for the masses” as the Nazis did. He denounced the fanaticism of National-Socialism as alien to the German soul.

At a time when someone like Steve Bannon sets out to poison European minds with his alt-right conspiracy theories and his overt racism to influence the 2019 elections for a new European Parliament and to promote nationalistic, xenophobic and racist parties, one has to be watchful not to repeat the errors of the past. At a time when the deliberate spreading of propaganda and fake news via social media have given nationalism, racism, anti-intellectualism an enormous potential audience, it is important to see how easily even a bright minds can be confused.

Thomas Mann loved Richard Wagner’s operas and he speaks several times in his “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man” of “Tristan und Isolde”. I am infatuated by this opera myself and willing to share my enthusiasm, provided we leave any political interpretation aside:

A metaphysical love on the coast of Cornwall