Critical Essays Influences on Thomas Mann


Johann Wolfgang Goethe

According to Mann's own words, the life, thought, and works of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) influenced him considerably. Death in Venice was originally conceived to deal with Goethe's life; the tetralogy of Joseph and His Brothers is full of allusions to his life and his nineteenth-century visions of a social utopia; Doctor Faustus and Lotte in Weimar (The Beloved Returns), show the spiritual kinship even in the choice of titles; and in The Magic Mountain two section headings are called to mind — "Walpurgis Night" and "A Soldier and Brave" — both direct references to Goethe's Faust.

Concerning The Magic Mountain, this novel represents Mann's first attempt to create a modern version of Wilhelm Meister, Goethe's classical bildungsroman. The aim of this type of novel — literally it means "novel of education" — is to show a young man's self-education. In The Magic Mountain, Castorp's exposure to the intellectual battles between Settembrini and Naphta is as much a part of this journey toward a fuller understanding of life as is his growing devotion to the natural sciences. In fact, Mann, like Goethe, contends that it is the duty of the true artist to observe closely the phenomena of life. Only in this manner can he overcome the false dichotomies of art-science and spirit-life which, in the case of Mann, he had failed victim to the spell of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. This is why both Wilhelm Meister and Hans Castorp study medicine. The more deeply they penetrate into the mysteries of nature, the more they understand life and humanity. This understanding becomes the basis for their compassion for life. In The Magic Mountain, Mann celebrates art as a humanistic discipline; and, a decade later, he advanced far enough along the path toward synthesis between art and life to proclaim, "Life wants to be taken seriously — so does art."

Goethe, whom Mann called a "representative of the bourgeois era," stands as the embodiment of the middle way between false antitheses including that between democracy and totalitarianism. Shocked by the impotence of the French Revolution to keep its promises of libretto and égalité, he was convinced that revolutionaries who promise both ideals at the same time are dreamers or charlatans. So was Thomas Mann. He not only questioned the meaningfulness of radicalism, but for a long time also he questioned traditional Western democracy with its inevitable basis of expansive capitalism. It was not until Europe lay in ruins after World War I that, under the influence of Goethe's humanism, he began to turn into an ardent defender of the German Republic. Yet Mann remained very much aware of the serious problems facing the democratic ideal, in which he never ceased to detect a built-in tendency toward anarchy. "In a sense, democracy presents an obstacle," he said in 1924, "for what Europe really needs is some force of enlightened dictatorship."

Upon being confronted with Whitman's writings for the first time, Mann exclaimed, "I can see well that Whitman called democracy what we, in a more old-fashioned way, have called humanism." This is why Mann, like Goethe over a century before him, celebrated America as the symbol of a new social order on a worldwide basis. "My exile," he wrote from California, "has nothing to do with waiting to return; in a sense, it bears the traces of this new age in which nations will dissolve and the world become united." How close this vision is to that of the emigrants to America in Wilhelm Meister! Their motto was "Seek to help wherever you go, for everywhere is your home." In his famous lecture Goethe and Democracy, delivered at the Library of Congress in 1949, Mann emphasized his affinity with Goethe by restating the latter's aspirations for America as his own.

The bourgeois, humaniste et poète, as Clavdia Chauchat refers to Castorp in The Magic Mountain, represents Mann's idea of the German as the mediator between East and West. This is true for the political realm as much as any other one. In this connection, it is important to note that Castorp never really embraces anybody or anything completely, though, literally speaking, heaven and hell are summoned to aid in his education. He manages to maintain distance. Here we find Goethe's ideal of his old age, "renunciation." It means self-conquest, the realization that the only significance of the individual lies in what he accomplishes for humanity. The concept of the "communal bond" emerges. In Faust, the protagonist seeks salvation by contributing physically to the improvement of the world; in Wilhelm Meister, America stands as the dawn of the age of communal responsibility and happiness for those willing to share in its realization; and in The Magic Mountain, Castorp, partly because he wants to and partly because there is no alternative, becomes the sacrifice indispensable for the rebirth of a hopefully saner civilization.

Richard Wagner

From his earliest days, Mann was exposed to music, especially that of the Romantics, at his home. The adolescent author admired Wagner's operas and, as he never tired of emphasizing, would not miss a performance at the Munich Opera for anything in the world. His brother Klaus, however, disagreed with Thomas' musical tastes. He complained that Wagner's music was "always the same rhythm, dragging and driving at the same time, the same wooing and enticing, the same exhaustion following the ecstasy — it was always Tristan." And Tristan and Isolde is, by any standard, the pinnacle of Romanticism, its furthest artistic expansion bordering on the unbearable with its intoxicating longing for death.

Concerning Wagner's influence on Mann's writings, it is not difficult to detect Wagner's influences in Buddenbrooks, this "epic train of generations interwoven by Wagnerian leitmotifs," as Mann referred to it. And, in the short story Tristan, the tuberculosis-ridden patient-heroine, having brushed aside her doctor's warning not to become emotionally upset by Romantic music, meets death as she finishes playing the love duet from the second act of Tristan and Isolde on the piano. In The Magic Mountain, the countless stages of Castorp's journey toward self-education are tied together by leitmotifs. The story does not move from a beginning to an end but surges and subsides in a vacuum of timelessness. This is a literary parallel to Wagner's concept of eternal melody — a single, continuously surging, all-encompassing melody within which each motif flows and ebbs in harmony or contention with every other one.

Leo Tolstoy

Mann's philosophical and political development received its major impulses from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and, to an increasing extent, Goethe. Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), however, next to Wagner, was the main source of his artistic maturation.

From Tolstoy, Mann acquired his early predilection for sweeping epics, and from him he learned the device of an almost painful observation of even the most minute details. A well-known example of the Russian's accuracy, and one which Mann admired tremendously, is Tolstoy's personal and thorough study of the battlefield of Borodino, figuring so prominently in War and Peace. Another artistic device is that of the leitmotif which Wagner, and in the literary realm, Thomas Mann expanded to include the symbolic.

Tolstoy successfully integrated autobiographical elements into his writing. Mann was to follow him in this respect, magnificently weaving his doubts and agonies into the structure of The Magic Mountain through Castorp, his personification. During most of his life, Mann had to defend his art against his brother Heinrich's charge that he wasted too much time recording the world around him. Against this charge, he defended himself by accepting Tolstoy's view of literature as a "critique of reality through the spirit." He believed that "truly great writers have never invented anything but have charged material handed to them with their soul, thus reviving it."

Arthur Schopenhauer

In his The World as Will and Idea, Schopenhauer (1788-1860) celebrates the will as an insatiable force without conscious purpose or direction. Human beings may deceive themselves into thinking that they are acting from considerations dictated by reason alone, but this is never true. The function of the intellect is only to assist the will to achieve its ends. Since the will is "blind," all participation in life is to be avoided. The death-wish (not suicide) therefore assumes central proportion in this philosophy, for it terminates the journey of tragic delusions which is life.

The importance Schopenhauer assigns to artistic experience is understandable in the light of these views. It is he who deliberately spends life in "contemplation" rather than in practical action who comes closest to the ideal of total noninvolvement. What Mann learned from Schopenhaner was that artistic sensitivity and intellect can only grow at the expense of vitality and vice versa. Whereas Schopenhauer preached the renunciation of this vitality, however, Mann was not so pessimistic and contented himself with presenting this dualism. Beginning in The Magic Mountain, he tried to transcend it and became cautiously optimistic. In terms of his political attitudes, this meant that he eventually overcame the ideal of aloofness from political and social concerns.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Like Schopenhauer, with those writings he was familiar, Nietzsche (1844-1900) is thoroughly convinced of humanity's inability to perceive anything but phenomena, never reality behind them. Only a purely esthetic view of life (as opposed to moral) can compensate for the fact that life is but a recurring show of images. Hence, he revolts against all notions of truth and morality, attacking not only religion but also reason.

So far he is in total agreement with Schopenhauer. While the latter advocates not only noninvolvement in the affairs of the world but also the renunciation of individual desire, however, Nietzsche violently affirms the will to life.

His attempt to affirm the basic will to life, but without a rational or conventionally moral basis, leads him to celebrate irrationality as subjective, esthetic experience. In his The Birth of Tragedy, he pits reason and consciousness against irrationality and blind power. Represented by the deities of Apollo and Dionysus, these forces are engaged in eternal battle. Nietzsche contends that Apollonian man, infected by the naive faith in reason, science, and humanity, is incapable of bearing the joys and sorrows of primitive life; he is incapable of killing and suffering, and therefore too decadent to live intensely. Nietzsche is convinced that the rebirth of barbarism is about to replace the contemptible common belief in reason and superficial happiness.

Nietzsche despises Christianity as a sanctuary of the spiritually and physically inferior, and his hero is indifferent, if not hostile, toward any notion of assuming responsibility for society. Since he abides by his self-made code of conduct, he lives apart from society and what he considers its trappings of conventional morality and cheap satisfaction. Fiercely individualistic, he sees the democratic ideal as the institutionalization of the "herd morality." Instead, he assumes an aristocratic position which regards a people as "nature's roundabout way of producing three or four outstanding human beings."

Nietzsche thoroughly disliked and attacked the attitudes of the typical bourgeois, an important aspect of which is its exaggerated sense of nationalism. As a result, he considered himself decidedly anti-German. Although Nietzsche held these views, Hitler was to adopt his idea of individualism, culminating in the concept of the "superman" and his transvaluation of all values, as the basis for his projected millennium of Nazi rule. As in the case of Wagner, Hitler found elements in Nietzsche which lent themselves to easy distortion.

Back to Top