Top Marks For Me!

I was pleasantly surprised to discover, this morning, that my reading of Thomas Mann as a writer of epic grandeur, merely posing as a bourgeois materialist, has some basis in real scholars’ understanding. In a review ((Stammers, T. (2022) ‘He Is Cubic!’ London Review of Books, Volume 44, No 15,)) of Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, by Alex Ross, 2 Tom Stammers summarises Ross’s description of how Wagner, though not, apparently, a nationalist, was co-opted by the right. One of Wagner’s foremost defenders against this misrepresentation was Mann, whose work according to Ross, “…is a kind of aftermath to Wagner”. 3

The pleasure of recalling my reading of Death In Venice is strong enough that I have ordered a copy of Buddenbrooks, and am looking forward to reading it. I was amazed by the precision of Mann’s storytelling in Death In Venice but, chiefly, I found in it a sense of what I called ‘degraded magic’ and a feeling of an epic voyage through decay to a reverse epiphany. It is the small tale of a lonely, arrogant man becoming unravelled by his vanity, but it feels like opera. What most impressed me was how this little story was able to plausibly bear the weight of that sense of grandeur.

However, seeing his work tied to Wagner, and discovering he was, in fact, a scholar of the composer, has made sense of that feeling of grandiosity in his writing. To describe Death In Venice as ‘Wagnerian’, is not to puff it up or dismiss it, even though, for me, ‘Wagnerian’ denotes a sense of camp ridiculousness, a la Bugs Bunny. See embed source for copyright

Wonderful, camp and gleeful as this is, it is most definitely what not what I find in Mann. The sense of epic greatness, applied, in Mann’s case, not to overblown legends of racial origins, but to the struggles and delusions of the bewildered subjects of a collapsing empire, creates, for me, a power greater than opera. Where opera feels like parody, even before the hubristic American cartoonists – heirs to the old empire’s powers and treasures – get hold of it, Mann’s writing feels like truth.

I have no love of Wagner. Besides finding his music boring and unresolved 4 I had assumed he was a fascist, simply because his work only seems to make sense, after the mid-20th Century, in the light of fascism. Apparently, though, he was more an anarchist; most definitely of the left, although still a horrible, loud, unapologetic, anti-semitic bigot. As someone who thinks that fascist is as fascist does, I find the distinctions here a bit tricky to identify, but…

He was, Mann said, ‘charged with life and stormily progressive’, an innovator, with one foot already ‘on atonal terrain’, a ‘cultural Bolshevik’ (Kulturbolschewist) ‘man of the Volk who all his life fervently rejected power, money, violence and war’ and intended his festival for ‘a classless society, whatever the age made of it’. In conclusion: ‘No spirit of reaction and pious backwardness can claim him – he belongs instead to every future-directed will.’5

This is from a speech Mann gave in 1933 entitled The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner, 6 In it, he managed to dismiss the newly-ascendant Nazi party’s claims on the composer effectively enough to cause a backlash that led him to leave Germany. The Nazis were in the process of deifying Wagner and Mann, while acknowledging his admiration for Wagner and the peaks of genius in his work, had the cheek to suggest that he was a bit, well, bourgeois; a bit gauche, like displays of artificial flowers.

[Wagner’s texts]…often seem somewhat overblown and baroque, naive, with an air of grandiose and overbearing ineptitude: yet interspersed with passages of sheer genius, of a power, economy and elevated beauty that banish all doubt, though they cannot efface an awareness that these are creations which stand outside the tradition of great European literature and poetry.7

My qualifications as a literary scholar are pretty thin, and my experience thinner still, so it is rather nice to find my opinions reinforced by the work of real critics. And yet, thanks to my new reading about Mann, I can see that he was a knowing Wagner enthusiast, who loved the power of the work while seeing its weaknesses. I am further impressed by this remarkable writer.

However, I still hate Wagner. I gave a streamed Parsifal (WARNING! Youtube) five minutes this afternoon, and just couldn’t take it. What is it the fanboys hear in that ‘clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded … sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless’ rubbish?

  1. Stammers, T. (2022) ‘He Is Cubic!’ London Review of Books, Volume 44, No 15, []
  3. Stammers, 2022[]
  4. I was delighted to read that I am in good company here, too: “Not everyone was seduced: Rimbaud was indifferent; Tolstoy denounced the Ring cycle as ‘counterfeit art’; a discombobulated Ruskin left a performance of Die Meistersinger claiming the music was ‘clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded … sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless’.” Stammers (2022)[]
  5. Stammers 2022[]
  6. I can’t find a copy of this, but a book in which it is included is reviewed here: Joll, J., Mann and the Magician, The New York Review, March 27th 1986 and extensively quoted in this article: Williams, B., Wagner and Politics, The New York Review, November 2nd 2000 []
  7. Mann, T. The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner, cited in Loll, 1986[]

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