Digital Feature

Thomas Mann’s Civilized Uncertainty

HUMANITIES, Summer 2020, Volume 41, Number 3
Published on

To call a modern artist measured and sensible and fundamentally decent might sound like faint praise or even sarcasm. Yet that description fits the great German writer Thomas Mann (1875–1955), author of numerous short stories and novellas, literary and political essays, and seven novels, of which four are generally regarded as canonical masterpieces—Buddenbrooks (1901), The Magic Mountain (1924), Joseph and His Brothers (in four volumes, 1933–43), and Doctor Faustus (1947).

Mann is known as a novelist of ideas first and foremost. It is true that he grasped the intellectual and spiritual lightning that tore open the storm-darkened European skies of the twentieth century, but he could write beautifully about perfectly ordinary and tranquil days as well. Among modern writers, he possessed the mind most congenial to liberal democracy, which his colleagues to the left and to the right tended to despise. He was, as a young man, something of a Prussian militarist zealot and, as an old man, a friend of sorts to Soviet communism, but his creative energy flowed from a source of honorable uncertainty in politics, morals, and metaphysics. Mann never could explain what the world was, but he did a masterly job of portraying it in all its glorious and bedeviled complication.

Mann’s characteristic mode of thought is the ironic, by which he means something more than droll mockery or startling serendipity. In the conclusion to his 1922 essay “Goethe and Tolstoy”—the finest essay on a literary subject that I know—he gives his most explicit account of the turn of mind he so favors: “Beautiful is resolution. But the really fruitful, the productive, and hence the artistic principle is that which we call reserve. . . . In the intellectual sphere we love it as irony: that irony which glances at both sides, which plays slyly and irresponsibly—yet not without benevolence—among opposites, and is in no great haste to take sides and come to decisions; guided as it is by the surmise that in great matters, in matters of humanity, every decision may prove premature; that the real goal to reach is not decision, but harmony, accord. And harmony, in a matter of eternal contraries, may lie in infinity; yet that playful reserve called irony carries it within itself, as the sustained note carries the resolution. . . . Irony is the pathos of the middle . . . its moral too, its ethos. . . . We [Germans] are a people of the middle, of the world-bourgeoisie; there is a fittingness in our geographical position and in our mores. I have been told that in Hebrew the words for knowing and insight have the same stem as the word for between.” The most discriminating judiciousness, irony takes account of all sides of a story and adheres to none: It is unbridled intellectual liberty, or even license, and to Mann’s mind this cool reserve brings one closer to the truth than hot importunate grasping ever could.

The place of the artist or intellectual renegade in modern society was a prominent theme in Mann’s writing. His ironic intelligence habitually hovered between the claims of art devoutly pursued and the joys of life handsomely lived. This fruitful ambivalence characterizes the bourgeois family saga Buddenbrooks, which made Mann a sterling reputation at the age of twenty-six, and which never does come down decisively on one side or other of the art-life divide. Subtitled The Decline of a Family, this 700-page novel traces the fortunes of a family of grain merchants prominent in a small city on the Baltic—a family that bears more than a passing resemblance to Mann’s own. The story of the Buddenbrooks appears to travel a clear moral arc. The upstanding Christian severity of the dying patriarch, Johann, gives way to the financial and social ascent of the next generation. Decline sets in with the unhappy financial and erotic careers of the next generation and deepens with the sad fate of the music-addled youth Hanno, whose early death marks the end of the line. But this apparent clarity is compromised from the start; in fact, the family history throughout combines innocence and decadence inseparably.

Decadence is not a simple matter in Mann’s eyes. Dutiful observance of the proprieties, for example, does not preclude moral failing. Generations of Buddenbrooks marry with apparent prudence, in order to enhance the family name and fortune, but find their lives squeezed dry of happiness. And you don’t need to peer into their bedrooms to understand how parched this arrangement for the sake of commerce truly is. Economic man and erotic man do not live easily together; Adam Smith could write of the happiness to be had by way of both love and money, but Mann considers the two essentially at odds. What seems to be romantic mischance repeated over and over is more like genetically programmed fatality. The Buddenbrooks are born and bred for unhappiness in love, or more precisely love’s simulacrum, which is the best they can manage.

If you don’t live well, you can’t die well, and the most complex and fully realized sorrow is that of Thomas Buddenbrook, like Mann’s own father, the family’s last solid burgher. He breaks with family tradition by marrying for love—an exotic woman, no less, who plays the violin gorgeously and is given to indulging an artistic sensibility. But the passion that seemed as though it ought to last a lifetime soon dissipates into an agreeable daily observance of civilized courtesies. The life Thomas had always lived, the things that gave it meaning, are shown to be nothing in the face of death, which he feels approaching. One night, as he thinks of the dead whom he would gladly join, his love for those who have lived their lives joyfully overwhelms him, and he understands it is not life but his own botched and dismal nature that he hates. He vows to devote himself to philosophical study and to live with thrilling vigor. In the morning, though, his “middle-class instincts” awaken, and his night thoughts seem impossible: What would people think if they knew what he’d been thinking? The unspoken compact on which a tolerable existence rests is to keep life ordinary and unquestioned, for the mystery of life and death is more than one can bear.

The chapters on Thomas’s spiritual anguish and death show the young Mann at his finest. He evidently learned a great deal from Tolstoy—he kept the master’s photograph on his desk during the writing of this novel—especially from his Ivan Ilyich, whose life was so very ordinary and thus so very terrible, as the approach of death caught him unawares. Mann, however, does not grant Thomas the Tolstoyan consolation, indeed the victory, of dying happily in the welcoming presence of divine love. Thomas dies as he has lived, in uncertainty as to the meaning of it all. That is the way Mann liked it, and he was to make a career of such fine irony, as he called his disinterested withdrawal from the pursuit of ultimate meaning. The richest art may pour from a man who is intellectually and spiritually perplexed by the great metaphysical mysteries. Another of Mann’s heroes, Nietzsche, famously said that we need art to protect us from the truth, but for Mann art is instead his way of rendering the truth as fully as he thinks one can know it.

Thomas Mann at his desk
Photo caption

Writer Thomas Mann in 1954 in Switzerland, where he resided after living in the United States during World War II.



—Photopress-Archiv/Keystone / Bridgeman Images

The Magic Mountain is one of the great modern literary testimonials to uncertainty, as it studies the effect that three men who are sure they know how best to live have upon a younger man as yet unformed. Hans Castorp, introduced in the first words of the book as “an ordinary young man,” comes to a sanitarium in the Swiss mountain town of Davos on what he supposes will be a brief visit to his tubercular cousin. As it turns out, Castorp has a spot on his lung as well, and he winds up staying for seven years. The honorably mediocre youth plunges into an atmosphere unlike any he has known. The inescapable presence of death gives life on the heights a languorous eroticism and a bracing intellectual energy.

Castorp meets two intellectuals who become dueling proselytizers, each eager to claim the youth as an initiate into the one true faith. The Italian humanist Settembrini preaches the inevitable triumph of reason and democracy, which will usher in an epoch of earthly perfection. This earthly life is all we’ve got, his reason tells him, so it must be treated with the utmost seriousness and brought to its ideal fruition. Naphta is his natural antagonist in spiritual combat. A Galician Jew by birth, the son of a kosher butcher who was crucified in a pogrom, Naphta converted to Roman Catholicism, studied for the Jesuit priesthood, and became a devotee of socialism, which satisfied both his fervor for Christly perfection and his lunatic bloodlust. He is an apostle of death, and scorns the liberal civilization of Settembrini as spiritual desolation, where the body’s health is the supreme value and the soul finds no sustenance.

Not only is Castorp whipsawed between these zealots who are vying for his soul, he also runs headlong into a sexual obsession with the “listless, worm-eaten, Kirghiz-eyed” Russian beauty Clavdia Chauchat. He has one night of love with her, and then she departs; he waits years for her to come back, but when she does, it is as the lover of the formidable Mynheer Pieter Peeperkorn.

An elderly Dutchman from Java, suffering from relapsing and extremely painful tropical fever, Peeperkorn, despite his illness, possesses the radiant magnificence of being that makes him count for something even when he has nothing serious to say. Beside the voluble and sometimes dazzling intellectuals he appears mentally dim but nevertheless effulgent with life force. At a drinking party in the sanitarium that is Mann’s answer to Plato’s Symposium, Peeperkorn’s love of life, however vulgar and inarticulate, claims the prize. Life is an erotic treasure that cannot be dismissed or slighted, Peeperkorn advises Castorp, and to scorn the simple gifts is the unforgivable sin against life. Yet even Peeperkorn’s heroic vitality succumbs to the sadness of the flesh. Tormented by the onset of sexual impotence, Peeperkorn commits suicide, and his death is but the prelude to an orgy of self-destruction.

In the heat of disputation, Settembrini calls Naphta a corruptor of youth, and Naphta demands satisfaction. When the appointed time comes, Settembrini fires into the air. Naphta, in a fury, screams that his opponent is a coward, and shoots himself in the head. On the heights moderation is unheard of: Every idea is pursued to its logical conclusion, no matter how extreme or paradoxical that might be, and yet this mental hurly-burly is far from the unrelenting noble pursuit of the truth. Hot opinions about the gravest matters glint like drawn knives. Settembrini and Naphta, full of passionate intensity, badgering, hectoring, and trumpeting, lack the temperament of men born to seek wisdom; they are tempestuous rather than serene, doctrinaire rather than searching, and they consider the rightness of their opinions to be a matter of honor. At heart they are not philosophers but political intellectuals, driven by the same emotions that roil the masses of men. For them, the ultimate test of an idea is evidently the thinker’s willingness to kill or die for it. Proof of conviction counts for more than truth, and when that is the case, any hope of discerning the truth might as well be forgotten.

In the flatlands, meanwhile, a vast murderousness is stirring; the same “great petulance” that put an end to Peeperkorn and Naphta has sent Europe hurtling into the darkness of total war, and Castorp decides he can’t pass up the chance to be part of it. The last we see of him, he is running in an infantry attack, and singing to himself as he runs: “Der Lindenbaum,” from Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, that Romantic premonition of the European death wish. The narrator observes that Castorp will probably die in combat, but the novel’s closing sentence seems to hold out the hope that from this war a new beauty may emerge, with or without our hero. “And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round—will love someday rise up out of this, too?” The obvious retort is, Not bloody likely, especially from the vantage of 1924 Germany, but here, again, Mann holds his fire. The most famous novel ever written about a young man’s questioning ends with a question about the historical consequence of a war he may or may not survive. Indefiniteness can be a debilitating affliction, in a thinking man as in a man of action; Mann makes of it a liberating art. Cleaving to a Socratic modesty, he never claims to know more than he actually does know, and thus proves himself more knowing than the pretenders to a superior certainty. He practices the moderation that his characters eschew, and his novel embodies the disinterested intellectual love that nobody he writes of ever does attain.

The 1,500-page tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers asks two questions: What constitutes the fullest human wisdom? And what is the highest achievement of civilization? The monumental novel retells the biblical tale of Joseph that concludes Genesis: A dreamer of heavenly dreams that suggest his visionary and even prophetic powers, Joseph draws upon himself the bitter anger of his resentful ordinary brothers, who beat him, dump him down a dry well, and return home to tell their father, Jacob, that a lion has eaten his most beloved son. Some wandering Ishmaelites save Joseph from the well and take him to Egypt, where his gifts raise him up from slave to the pharaoh’s indispensable and beloved right hand. When his brothers come to Egypt in a time of famine—which Joseph had predicted and prepared for—in desperate need of grain, Joseph, whom they do not recognize, plays an exquisitely vengeful game with them, which ends with his revealing his identity and forgiving them.

painting of the coat of many colours.
Photo caption

The Coat of Many Colours by Ford Madox Brown, captures the moment when Joseph's brothers try to convince their father that Joseph was killed by a goat and exhibit his blood stained coat as proof. 

—Walker Gallery, Liverpool, Wikimedia Commons

In Genesis, the story of Joseph caps the account of how human beings learned to live in the fallen world after eating the forbidden fruit, which introduced humanity to the knowledge of good and evil. Mann has learned this much at least from the Bible: You don’t want to face this world without wisdom, but nearly everyone must make do with some inadequate approximation. In Mann’s version, as in the Bible, only Joseph clambers his way to the pinnacle of Hebrew wisdom, and perhaps of human wisdom all told, combining the prophecy that comes directly from God with the prudence that is exemplary human reason at its fullest extension. This paragon of spirit and mind demonstrates that one must have knowledge of God, circumscribed though it might be, as well as knowledge of men, unsavory as that is, in order to live well in this world. All this is necessary to contend with the innumerable snares and sorrows, some of which are instances of moral evil, worked by men, and some of which are blots of natural evil, ultimately attributable to God Himself.

The difficulty of disentangling moral from natural evil—if one falls in among wicked men, for example, is one’s suffering at their hands ordained by God?—gives Mann a lot to think about, and lies at the source of his unwillingness to venture an explanation of the divine ways. Still, the occasional ironic pinprick defaces the traditional godly visage. Mann’s Abraham presents the human challenge to divine moral perfection, but pulls back from an overt accusation, and concedes that God must be perfect despite His being evil as well as good. “Even darkness, evil, and unpredictable horror, even earthquake, a crackling bolt of lightning, a swarm of locusts darkening the sun, the seven evil winds, the Abubu of dust, the hornet, and the serpent were from God; and if He was called Lord of Pestilence, then that was because He was both its sender and its healer. He was not what is good, but what is all. And He was holy! Holy not out of goodness, but out of being the living God, and more than living, holy in His majesty and terribleness” This is Mann’s answer to—and is, in fact, a tactful evasion of—the question of why men should be held to blame for moral evil while God somehow eludes indictment for natural evil. The evasion of the question tacitly acknowledges human puniness and incompetence to address the Lord on this matter. There are questions to which men are simply not going to get the answer. Life, excess of life, overflows the moral categories devised by pipsqueak man.

The great political implication of this theological insight is that both theology and politics should embrace ecumenical tolerance as far as possible. Such possibility is not limitless: There are spiritual crevasses that separate one people and its gods from another. Jacob is given to speaking of “monkey-faced Egypt,” and to some extent Joseph shares his father’s distaste for its alien customs. Yet Joseph honors the young Pharaoh Amenhotep, who is renowned for his deep piety animated by religious curiosity, as a paragon of spiritual cosmopolitanism. Religious schism afflicts the Egypt of this time, and Joseph nudges Amenhotep in the direction of the gently tolerant god Atôn and away from the severe and chauvinistic Amun-Rê; the pharaoh even changes his name to Ikhnatôn, like Saul becoming Paul. The two adepts’ theological discussions take off for the spiritual horizon, in language that unmistakably foreshadows the gospels.

The best men all seek the One True God, Mann teaches, however they might diverge in points of doctrine, which are not insignificant but do not tell the whole story either. Only the unyielding zealots of the cruel Amun-Rê—Nazis in period costume, their maniacal piety unable to conceal their brazen political ambition—fall outside Mann’s welcoming embrace. The political lesson for Mann’s own time, and for the time to come after him, is patent. The only persons to be trusted with the souls of a people are not those who claim exclusively to possess the truth but rather those who acknowledge their own tentativeness as they continue to seek the truth wherever it may be found. The highest wisdom consists in the awareness that God has yet to reveal His full nature to men of any faith, and that the foremost human duty is to live in hopeful search of the as yet undisclosed divine being. The civilization that permits every individual so inclined to undertake this search is the one worthiest of our devotion; and Mann, in his inclusive and not entirely fanciful fashion, traces the origins of liberal democratic civilization to its roots not only in the Jewish and Christian traditions but also in the wisdom of this pharaoh, and of those like him, wherever and whenever they may have lived.

Doctor Faustus, Mann’s most eloquent and scarifying consideration of German high culture and political evil, marks a moral departure for his artistry, if not quite a definitive rupture. You cannot easily remain liberally undecided about Nazism. A decent man must oppose Nazism with all his might: If one is a German, he must wish for his native country’s defeat in war—its physical devastation, spiritual humiliation, and utter ruin. Mann fled Germany in 1936, one step ahead of expulsion—his intellectual defiance was criminal, and his wife was Jewish. From his redoubt in Pacific Palisades, California, he launched an unrelenting barrage of howitzer fire at the Third Reich. Hermann Kurzke in his 1999 biography Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art cites Mann’s wartime profession of moral lucidity: “Hitler had the great advantage of producing a simplification of emotions, the No that never for a moment was in doubt, a clear and lethal hatred. The years of battle against him were morally a good time.” However, about the God whose creation accommodates such enormities as Nazism, Mann in Doctor Faustus remains his indecisive, or at any rate undeclared, old self. And it is not so much his politics but rather his theology—his struggle to understand the demonic forces in their relation to the divine in this world—that constitutes this novel’s eerie brilliance.

Doctor Faustus is subtitled The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn As Told by a Friend; that lifelong friend is Serenus Zeitblom, whose name means “serene flower of the age.” He is a scholar of the humanities and a humane exemplar of moral and mental health, whose devotion to the musical genius Leverkühn consists of profound admiration and horrified fascination. In the opening chapter of his memoir, Zeitblom grudgingly admits that the word genius not only glows with divinely anointed human glory but also heaves with the wormy corruption of infernal powers—“a sinful and morbid necrosis of natural talents, the fruition of some horrible pact . . . ” [Mann’s ellipsis]. Leverkühn’s problematic genius is of the latter sort: a shimmering malignancy, beautiful but marked for death and worse. Zeitblom writes with irrepressible dread of the amoral plenum of nature that confounds both the purely reasonable and the piously credulous, all of whom prefer to know only the part of the story that suits them. Hints of the demonic fleck the most exquisite natural beauty, so that nature’s finest detail seems the work not of God but of the Demiurge—the evil spirit of gnostic theology who presides over the material world.

Recalling the childhood evenings spent with Adrian and his father, an amateur naturalist, Zeitblom has a particular memory of the butterfly Hetaera esmeralda, which bemused them all, and which in flight looks just like an airborne petal; he mentions this simply in passing, and in passing one observes that the word hetaera refers to an elegant courtesan. That fleeting memory blazes up like a flaming portent years later, when Leverkühn writes that the devil has paid him a nocturnal visit, and has informed him that, ever since his brief romance with a beautiful syphilitic prostitute named Esmeralda—and it is a romance, not a business transaction—the young man’s soul has been in the devil’s possession. Esmeralda had warned him of her illness, but he was hell-bent on having her. Now the powers of hell have him. A concatenation of diabolically arranged misadventures ensures that the medical treatment for Leverkühn’s infection fails. The disease—the demonic infestation—will destroy him, but first it will endow him with rare creative force: he will be the musical genius of the age. The devil promises him that this lavish gift shall more than compensate for his suffering, though that will be considerable: “Wait until Good Friday, and twill be Easter soon! Wait one, ten, twelve years, until the illumination, that bright radiant annulment of all lame scruples and doubts, reaches its pitch, and you will know for what you pay and why you bequeath us body and soul.” The earthly price for his genius will be the renunciation of love; the persons he loves most will die terrible deaths, the responsibility for which he will take the responsibility upon himself. In a cold fury at the death of his cherished young nephew from meningitis, he composes his masterpiece, The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus, which his icy mind conceives as the demolition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the anthem of political freedom and humanitarian warmth that he reduces to rubble, the “Ode to Joy” undone by a grimacing “Ode to Sorrow.”

Mann’s lamentation is for Germany, which has defiled its estimable cultural heritage and made itself a pariah nation, “the epitome of evil.” Zeitblom diagnoses the fatal corruption of the totalitarian mind, which has taken clear and simple concepts that are the fundamentals of liberal society and turned them inside out: “Freedom had been given to thought in order to justify force, just as seven hundred years ago reason had been free to discuss faith and prove dogma; that had been its purpose, and that was the purpose of thought today, or would be tomorrow.”

Men are obviously responsible for the evil they do, and they should pay for it, yet for Mann the origins of evil remain a vexed question. Beauty and moral horror are intimately conjoined in this novel, and the dark fatality of this union makes the innocent humanist Zeitblom shudder. “No one can follow my argument here who has not experienced as I have how close aestheticism and barbarism are to each other, or who has not felt how aestheticism prepares the way for barbarism in one’s own soul—though, granted, I have known this danger not of my own accord, but with the help of my friendship for a dear artist and imperiled spirit.” Just how guilty is Leverkühn? He really appears predestined for damnation, as Zeitblom says—chosen by the infernal powers rather than choosing them. And yet he too must pay and pay for his appointed fate.

That is Mann’s liberal and ironic art, the work of a man never quite satisfied that the truth is in hand. It is precisely because Mann addresses himself to the greatest and most exigent questions—What is wisdom? What is justice? What is civilization? Why is there evil? What can be said about God? What is the best way to live? What is life, even?—that he resorts in the end to resolute irresolution. Mann’s adoption of his liberal credo is more principled and nuanced than most. He is not intellectually fickle, like someone who does not know his own mind and who is susceptible to every argument that crosses his path; nor is he belligerently timorous, like one who considers it gross presumption for him—or anybody else—to claim he knows anything at all. Mann does know his own mind; and that mind is alert to every weakness in every line of thought, and accordingly unwilling to reduce profound moral complication to hapless formulae. Art is required to render truth adequately: For Mann, a story, often a very long story, outdoes the treatise or disquisition or broadside every time. He is a novelist of ideas, but in his work poetry has it over philosophy. Philosophical argument or theological contention is unfailingly partial, in both senses of that word: The whole eludes it. In Mann’s hands moral instruction is of a piece with the account of the whole, and in this account the mystery of life remains mysterious. At the same time, the novelist’s rich art leaves one satisfied even in the virtual certainty that one will never answer in this life, which might be the only life one will get, the questions to which he most wants the answers.