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Why Thomas Mann Wrote

ISSUE:  Winter 1999

Thomas Mann, born in 1875, was the most famous German author of the 20th century. In 1929 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He is best known in the United States for the novella, Death in Venice and the novel, The Magic Mountain. The definitive biography of Mann written by Peter de Mendelssohn ended prematurely when he died in 1982. Two further chapters dealing with Mann in 1918 and 1933, were published posthumously. Richard Winston’s biography which reached only to 1911, also ended with the author’s death. Jürgen Kohlbe’s dealt only with Thomas Mann in Munich, 1894-1933. Following the opening of Mann’s diaries in 1975 further, complete biographies have appeared.

Mann began keeping a diary when he was 14 years old; he made his final entry at age 80 on July 19, 1955, two weeks before his death. Upon the assumption of Nazi power in 1933 Mann, on a speaking tour out of Germany, exiled himself knowing that he would likely be put into prison or a concentration camp. His diaries remained in his Munich house. During the second World War he worried about their possible discovery by the Nazis and instructed his son Golo to retrieve them—wrapped in canvas, tied, sealed with wax, and hidden under floor boards in the house. His instructions to Golo included, “Do not read them.” Mann ordered that his diaries not be opened until twenty years after his death. Since 1975, the diaries have been published in German with extensive notes by Peter de Mendelssohn and Inge Jens. There are ten volumes; the first volume is of the period 1918-1921, the subsequent volumes concern his life from 1933 until his death. Unfortunately the diaries from 1921 to 1932, which were burned by Mann, covered a tremendously important period of Mann’s political development as well as events of German and world history. The final volume comprising the years 1953 to 1955 has only just appeared. On Feb. 17,1896, he wrote to his friend Otto Grautoff that he had burned his diaries since, “It became embarrassing and uncomfortable to have such a mass of secret—very secret—writings lying around.” A second burning which he casually recorded in his diary occurred between tea and dinner on May 21, 1945, at his home in California. He spared the diaries of 1918-1921 in order to use them in his creation of Dr. Faustus his last novel, an attempt to understand how Germany developed into the Nazi State.

Just before and following his death in August 1955, public interest in Thomas Mann’s writings had diminished. The Thomas Mann Scholars, a group primarily of German and Swiss academics with some Scandinavian and American specialists continued their indepth studies of Mann’s works. Interest in Thomas Mann as a person quickened upon publication of the diaries in 1975. The Scholars were embarrassed and aghast by the revelation of Mann’s extreme narcissism, his homosexual preoccupations, and the nasty comments he made about friends and people who were of help to him and his family. Many people who could read German began reading the diaries. As a result, in the past year, three biographies in English and one in German have been published. This essay is not a review of those biographies, but it is partly in response to their implication that Mann’s sexuality was the solitary inspiration for his creations. There are 13 volumes of Mann’s collected works, five of which contain his novels and short stories; the remainder are essays on a wide range of subjects, memorial speeches, and appeals to his countrymen during World War II. Of the 30,000 letters remaining after his death, 2,000 of them were selected by his eldest daughter Erika Mann and published in three volumes. Many, which she considered “too intimate,” were omitted. These remain, perhaps some day to be available for further study. In addition to these there are further volumes of letters to his friends Otto Grautoff and Ida Boy-Ed, and his brother, Heinrich Mann. Finally there are the ten volumes of diaries which remained after the two burnings over the years. Mann was a tireless, even compulsive, writer. After breakfast each day he retired to his study until noon. He was not to be interrupted for any reason; at times when the children were noisy he would be heard loudly clearing his throat in almost a growl. Following lunch he would nap, then take a walk, and later spend the afternoon with his correspondence. There was tea, often with visitors and later dinner. Evenings were spent at concerts or the theater. Before retiring he wrote in his diary and then read—he was a prodigious reader.


What can be said as to why Thomas Mann wrote? This essay explores the motivation of Thomas Mann’s writings by examining his creations and his own statements as to his creativity. In 1907 Sigmund Freud, amongst several other prominent authors, was invited to meet and present his views on creativity. He responded with his paper, “Creative Writers and Day-dreaming.” The central theme of this presentation was his discussion concerning the function of the child’s play—day-dreaming—fantasy. “A child’s play is determined by wishes: in point of fact by a single wish—one that helps in his upbringing—the wish to be big and grown up. He is always playing at being “grown up”, and in his games he imitates what he knows about the lives of his elders. He has no reason to conceal this wish.” Freud relates fantasy and day-dreams during the childhood of the author to a recapturing and fulfilling of these wishes through creative works.

In his lectures at Princeton University, entitled, “On Myself,” (May 1940) Mann said, “When I am asked about my development as an artist, about the history of my artistic activity and being, I ask myself about its roots, the first seeds and impulses, and I find them in the games of my childhood.” It is likely that Mann had read Freud’s 1908 essay. He described plays he evolved, based on scenes from a book of classical mythology which his mother had read to him and his brothers and sisters. He said further, “. . .[those] were visible games and others knew about [them]. However, there were invisible ones, for which no apparatus was needed at all. With those I might feel quiet satisfaction in the independent power of my phantasy, of which nothing could rob me. When still a young boy in Lübeck, I awoke one morning with the resolution to be for the day an eighteen year old prince by the name of Karl. I clothed myself in a certain kindly majesty, carried on an animated conversation with a governor or adjutant, whom I had appointed in my imagination, and walked about proud and happy in the secret of my dignity. One [I] could have lessons, be taken for a walk, hear stories read aloud, without its being necessary to interrupt the game for a moment,—and that was the practical part of it.” In short, he could remove himself in his fantasy from his surroundings and live a private life. Mann never gave up this princely fantasy; he dressed in the finest and most correct clothes, traveled only first class, stayed only in deluxe hotels, and carried himself with a regal dignity. When a boy, he also had a puppet theater for which he, “. . .was indebted . . .for my nicest playtime pleasures. I loved this type of play so very much that the thought of ever outgrowing it seemed impossible to me. I looked forward to the time when my voice would have changed that I might put my bass tones at the disposal of the peculiar music dramas, which I performed behind closed doors, and I was indignant when my brother [Heinrich] pictured to me how ridiculous it would appear if, as a man, I still sat before it. Between childhood play and artistic practice there is in my memory no break.” Mann never outgrew “this type of play,” for with his ironic distance “all the world’s a stage and the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” Mann’s diaries have disclosed the many roles he played, much like his hero in The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man.

Possible early determinants of Mann’s creativity lay in his basic character as a quiet, undemanding infant and young child. He is described as lying in a semi-somnolent state for much of the time—a quality of dreaminess which continued in his childhood as he lay sprawled on a sofa as his mother played the Etudes and Nocturnes of Chopin or sang the songs of Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt. Thomas especially liked her reading of fairy tales and telling romantic stories of her childhood in Brazil. Her German-Portugese-Creole origin was said to account for her exotic, pleasure-loving nature. In a letter to Agnes Meyer (the sponsor of the immigration of Mann and his family as well as being influential in his obtaining a position at Princeton University) he said he believed he was his mother’s most cherished child. His relationship with his father, a prominent merchant-senator of his home town Lübeck, was remote. Father represented the stable, disciplined burgher authority who had little to do with young Thomas. His father died when Thomas was 16. The influence of his mother’s exotic (seductive) qualities, her musicality, love of reading and writing (she kept a diary) strongly suggests a feminine identification by Thomas. Without actually using the word “feminine,” he later recognized this early identification and said that, as if by conscious choice, he decided to keep his “demonstrative” (sic!) nature in check. He adopted the position of orderliness, regularity, and discipline. His biographer Klaus Harpprecht suggests this was done, “with a portion of egotism, no small shot of vanity and grand irony.” Certainly that was the Mann who was most visible thereafter.


A further determinant of his imaginative creativity may be the result of the summers from his seventh to his 16th year which he spent on the beach at the mouth of the Trave River as it flowed into the Baltic Sea. Long hours were spent simply day-dreaming or reading whatever he chose. Throughout his life he recalled these summers as being the happiest times of his life. The first letter of Mann’s that has been saved is dated Oct. 14, 1889, when he was 14 years old. He mentions a play he had written, “Aischa” (the favorite wife of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. It is likely that his interest had been stirred by his mother’s reading of the classics). He signed the letter, “Thomas Mann, lyric-dramatic poet.” An attitude for greatness is already seen at this early age. At 18 he and two other schoolmates established Der Frühlingssturm (The Spring Storm). Mann served as contributor and editor to this publication described as, “a journal of art, literature and philosophy.” There were but two issues of this journal.

At Princeton he spoke of the origins of his creativity, “. . .the strangely intuitive spiritual composition of the developing authors; this secret knowledge about the existence of powers which may indeed require their time, but are unflinchingly at hand.” Here, now, is Mann’s Prince Karl of long ago speaking with the authority of the 65-year-old accomplished artist! With regard to the creation of Death in Venice, he said, “Over whole passages during this work, I had the feeling of a ruling impulse such as I have not known otherwise.” Harry Trosman, a psychoanalyst and a contributor to a recent discussion of Freud’s paper on creativity, suggests that, “. . .pleasure in creative work resides in the ego and not just in the expression of the drives.” In his earlier A Sketch of My Life, Mann made the comment that in the course of writing at times he had, “. . .at moments the clearest feeling of transcendence, a sovereign sense of being borne up.” Perhaps one can argue as to whether this “resides” in the ego or the drives. Wherever the sense of transcendence or pleasure resides, Mann wrote because it gave him pleasure.

In addition to writing in his diaries about boyhood friends that he had loved, Mann sought to memorialize them as characters in his novels and stories. In, A Sketch of My Life, he writes, “. . .there were poems, inscribed to a dear friend, the one who as Hans Hansen, in Tonio Kröger has a sort of symbolic existence, though in real life he took to drink and made a melancholy end in Africa.” As is known from his diaries, this was Mann’s school-boy friend, Armin Martens, his “first love.” Near the end of his life Mann, in a letter to another old school friend Hermann Lange, wrote, “And a more delicate, more blissfully painful love was never again to be granted me. [Does he here truly confess not having loved, not being able to love his wife Katia?]. Something like that is not forgotten, even if seventy eventful years pass over it. It may sound ridiculous, but I cherish the memory of this passion of innocence like a treasure.”

Before Tonio Kröger, Mann had written his first novel, Buddenbrooks, in which he narrated the fall of a family representative of the middle-class burgher culture. He presents himself through the tragic character, Hanno Buddenbrooks, who had a friend the prototype of Mann’s enamorata. In real life this was Count Hans Kaspar von Rantzau, a friend and schoolmate through five years of Mann’s early education. In Buddenbrooks he is Kai Mölin: “Kai was a lad of about Hanno’s height. . .his hands . . .were unusually narrow and elegant, with long fingers and tapering nails. His head . . .[was] . . .endowed by nature with all the marks of pure and noble birth. The carelessly parted hair, reddish blond in color, waved back from a white brow, and a pair of light blue eyes gleamed bright and keen from beneath. The cheekbones were slightly prominent; while the nose, with its delicate nostrils and slightly aquiline curve, and the mouth with its short upper lip already had a definite character.” Here is Mann’s quintessential boy-Ephebe-lover who is also close in description, in The Magic Mountain, to Pribislav Hippe, the depiction of Mann’s “second love,” Willri Timpe. Throughout his creative writings he constructs characters who represent school-mates or young men he loved.

In his diary entry, Aug. 25, 1950, Mann said,—Warum schreibe ich dies alles? Um es noch rechzeitig vor meinem Tode zu vernichten? Oder Wüsche, dasz die Welt mich kenne? Ich glaube, sie weisz, wenigstens unter Kennern, ohnedies mehr von mir, als sie mir zugibt.”—(“Why do I write all this? Only so that I can destroy it in time before my death? Or do I wish that the world know me? I believe, at least by the more perceptive people, more is known than is conceded to me.”) Mann wrote his diaries so that the world could more fully know him and, as a confessional, to be forgiven. This is both a generous and a highly narcissistic motivation displaying his grandiosity to all the world. Yes, he was quite right, many people are very interested in his diaries. He also needed a friend to whom he could confide, confess, his innermost thoughts and feelings. An outstanding feature of the diaries is that they are written as if to an intimate friend such as he never truly had. Yet, there is restraint. When he reports that he would like to have “an adventure” with one or another of young men he had seen and whose bodies, blonde hair and blue eyes he admired, he does not disclose his fantasy as to what he would do with that young man. In the discussion of Felix Krull, possible meanings in the narrative will be considered as an expression of such fantasies. Mann felt a life-long guilt as well as longing in regard to his sexual preference. Here in his diaries he could express these feelings, as if with the hope that he could relieve his guilt. The diaries can be considered an auto-therapeutic effort. Thomas Mann wrote to confess his guilt, presumably with the hope that he would be forgiven; much like the guilty sufferer who confesses his unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and actions to his psychoanalyst or priest with the hope of redemption.

Mann wrote to express his creative originality in the context of portraying the shifts occurring in European culture and the family. T. J. Reed, an authority on Mann observes:

His first novel, Buddenbrooks {published when he was but 26} seems at first sight dominated by the provincial reality he had left behind {Lübeck a remote city in the north}, a monument to a charactistic way of life. But the novel’s immense success lay not in the local materials but in its precocious craftsmanship—the maturely unruffled style, the deft variations of technique and tempo that maintain narrative interest, the sovereign control of a long and complex history, the perfect balance struck between a relentless theme {Decline of a Family is the novel’s subtitle}, and the richness of figures and episodes that embody it. Already, by his twenties, Mann had read Tolstoy, Turgenev, Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers, Maupassant and Bourget. All of this was his own schooling, as well as his developing a skeptical analysis by his reading of Nietzsche. . . .

There are those critics who consider Mann a master of montage, not outright “copying” but a skill at juxtaposition. Mann himself in speaking on matters of creativity said, “. . .a word in praise of imitation, which according to my experience and conviction is, at a certain age, absolutely no sign of literary weakness nor lack of talent but, on the contrary, is a symptom of literary liveliness and capacity for style . . .it is said today [this was in 1940] and has been said for a long while, that I have an individual style by which I am recognized; but there were times when the creative need manifested itself exclusively in imitation.” This is a remarkable statement since he and T. J. Reed consider Buddenbrooks to be an original creation. Mann says, concerning the writing of Buddenbrooks, “. . .I sought for support and aid among the giants of the declining century for I remember having read especially Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace, to draw strength for a task of which I could show myself capable by constant reliance on the greatest.” Despite this declaration Mann did not include the influence of Theodor Fontane’s novel, Effie Briest on his creation of Buddenbrooks.

James N. Bade, editor of the Princeton lectures, comments on the originality of Buddenbrooks, “Mann read Effie Briest by Theodor Fontane, in 1896, a year before starting work on Buddenbrooks and it appears to have influenced his first novel in both form and content.” In Mann’s letter to Otto Grautoff, Feb 2, 1896, he describes Effie Briest which he had “recently read,” as “absolutely first rate.” Mann later denied having read Effie Briest or any of Fontane’s later novels before he wrote Buddenbrooks.

Effie Briest was the great novel of realism which dealt with a young woman of a well-established family who became entrapped in a traditional, unhappy, arranged marriage which came to a tragic end, much like Tony Buddenbrooks. Buddenbrook was the name of a second in the duel between Effie’s husband and her lover—the lover was killed. There are marked similarities between other characters in Effie Briest and those in Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Mann has commented on what he called his character trait of deep self doubt. He said, several times, that when he would turn a manuscript over to the publisher he would shrug his shoulders and expect rejection, only to be amazed when his productions were accepted and became best sellers. Whereas his hero, Goethe, had great originality, Mann had to work hard to produce his masterpieces; perhaps emotionally he couldn’t afford to admit the influence of Fontane’s novel on his writing of Buddenbrooks. The influence of other works is also seen in The Sorrows of Werther, Lotte in Weimar and The Magic Mountain which, as a Bildungsroman (a novel of the hero’s development), is related to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship. Therefore it can be said that Mann wrote in imitation of great novels.

Be all of this as it may, Buddenbrooks revealed the creative genius of Thomas Mann. As a first novel it was the author’s story of his life, thus far; it was also the first of a series of works dealing with the shift in European culture. It presented the decline of the classic bourgeois ruling, middle-class, merchant culture of the late 19th century. Hence it can be said that Mann wrote to record the decline-decadence of a segment of European culture.


Following the resounding success of his first novel, Mann wrote a number of short stories while attempting to continue his position as a “Schriftsteller,” (the German word distinguishing an accomplished author from a “Schreiber” just a writer). Amongst these short stories were several of his most outstanding works: Tonio Kröger, Tristan, and The Infant Prodigy. His second novel, Royal Highness (1910), didn’t meet the quality of Buddenbrooks. In late 1909 he had started to write a pseudo-autobiography of a confidence man-trickster entitled Felix Krull. The idea for such a novel was suggested by the autobiography of an actual trickster named Manolescu. Mann wished to model (imitate) this pseudo-autobiography on the autobiography of Goethe. In a letter to his brother Heinrich, Jan 10, 1910, he reported that he was amazed at how much of a disturbing psychological nature was drawn out of him while working on Felix Krull. He set the work aside. Throughout 1910, Mann experienced a series of difficulties. which left him at the end of March, 1911, beset by headaches and stomach trouble to the degree that he spent several weeks in a health sanitarium near Zurich. In the middle of May a much-needed respite was sought and he went with Katia and Heinrich to the island of Brioni. While there, he learned of the death of Gustav Mahler, whom he had met the past September. Mahler was to serve as the physical model for Mann’s central character, Gustav von Aschenbach, in Death in Venice. Finding Brioni unsatisfactory the three moved to the Hotel des Baines on the Lido in Venice, where they remained from May 20 to June 2. It was during this holiday that the idea of the novella, Death in Venice, came to Mann. In a letter to Philipp Witkop, Mann told him of his plan. “I have begun work on a strange thing which I brought with me from Venice, a novella, earnest and pure in form, dealing with a case of “Knabenliebe” [boy love] in an aging artist.” In 1965 a Polish baron identified Thomas Mann as the man who had appeared to be following him about during a vacation in Venice in 1911.

Katia Mann was developing, during this time, symptoms of tuberculosis which led to her entry into a sanitarium at Sils Maria, Switzerland where Friedrich Nietzsche had had his summer house. She remained there from Sept. 2 to Sept. 19, 1911. Then from March 10 to Sept. 25, 1912, Katia was in the Waldsanitorium of Dr. Jessen in Davos. Mann visited her here for three weeks, May into June and was told by Dr. Jessen that he had a moist spot on one of his lungs. This experience was mirrored by Hans Castorp, the hero of The Magic Mountain, when he came for a three-week visit to his cousin in the sanitarium. Death in Venice was completed and published in the summer of 1912 while Katia was still at Davos. Heinz Kohut in his paper, “”Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann: A Story About the Disintegration of Artistic Sublimation” (which was written 11 years before the opening of the diaries) discussed the novella as exclusively concerned with Mann’s homosexual anxiety. It is doubtful that sublimation was involved since Mann was painfully aware of his desires. Likewise Visconti’s film presents only the mutual homosexual attraction of Aschenbach (Mann) and Tadzio. Death in Venice, under the scrutiny of T. J. Reed,

. . .is far more than a decorative confessional, homosexual story. Such aspects are indeed present but there is far more. It is a skilled combination of psychology and myth as well as connections for Mann since Richard Wagner wrote part of Tristan and Isolde in Venice and had died there. Tristan and Isolde was a passionate favorite of Thomas Mann. Nietzsche had stayed there and had written poetry about the city. The homosexual poet, August von Platen another of Mann’s favorites had written Sonnets From Venice and in flight from a cholera epidemic in Venice, had died in Italy.

Mann’s writing of the novella was multiply determined. He was under stress; he faced fragmentation of his personality, he did indeed fall in love with a boy, he worried about Katia’s health, and there were the connections with Nietzsche, Wagner, and von Platen. Yet his creativity came to the fore in his producing a novel cleverly combining myth (Tadzio-Hermes), psychology—the abandonment of an Apollonian position to that of Dionysius and regression to utter sensuality. It has also been noted that as early as 1910 Mann sensed an ominous quality to European culture and presented a portent of dire events to come with the various omens displayed in the novella. Such omens were more explicitly stated in Mario and the Magician (1929). Mann wrote for a variety of reasons. He used his creativity to help himself to maintain his psychological cohesion as well as to express his sense of foreshadowing of events.


On July 24, 1913, in a letter to his friend Ernst Bertram, Mann announced the beginning of his work on The Magic Mountain. Actually notes concerning such a novel had been made during his stay at the Villa Christophoro in Riva am Gardasee, Nov. 5 to Dec. 20, 1901. Doctor Christoph von Hartungen was the head of this elegant spa for nervous diseases. Brother Heinrich had spent time there on several occasions before his and Thomas’ entry in 1901. Manfred Dierks, in a paper given at a conference on the origins of The Magic Mountain, contended that, “Heinrich sought treatment for unspecified sexual difficulties; Thomas’ problem was sharper than his brother’s, he is homosexual.” Dierks further asserted, that Thomas had known since 1896 (he was then 21 years old) that he was homosexual! Both brothers believed that their difficulties were due to heredity, a popular belief at the time. The visits to the sanitarium were sporadic during 1901-1904. This was the period of his life that Thomas was most in love with Paul Ehrenburg, a close friend and artist. Mann was very depressed and suicidal. Paul was supportive of him and suicide was averted. Mann never disclosed his love to Paul.

Among the therapies offered was “Sprachtherapie“— psychotherapy. Of pertinence to The Magic Mountain were the notes that Mann kept concerning the other patients and his doctor. The kernel of The Magic Mountain was collected and stored away for a dozen years. Here was the origin of the satirical picture of Dr. Krokowski the “psychoanalytiker” and of other patients in the sanitarium. Mann constructed caricatures of other persons in his life; Gerhardt Hauptmann, a prominent playwright and novelist, was portrayed as the bombastic Mynheer Peeperkorn who committed a dramatic suicide in the novel. Hauptmann, deeply offended by Mann’s caricature of him was mollified by his apology. The citizens of Lübeck recognized his parodies of them as did the head of the Waldsanitorium and, until he became famous, he was unwelcome. Mann wrote to satirize people he knew and to express his hostility.

Mann worked on The Magic Mountain, discussing it with Ernst Bertram and giving readings to his family and others until the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. He had finished the first third of the first of eventually two volumes, but he didn’t return to it until the end of April, 1919. Mann wrote The Magic Mountain, in part, as a further commentary on the decline of European culture. Buddenbrooks described the decadence-decline of the middle class culture, reflected in the decline of a family. Death in Venice dealt with the decadence-decline of a prominent intellectual of that culture and The Magic Mountain displayed the entire European culture in decline. It can also be seen as a classic example of a Bildungsroman— the development and education of a young man. It was an educational project for Thomas Mann himself as he explored many areas of knowledge in order to write of the development of his hero, Hans Castorp. Everything that Mann wrote involved intense self-education. Many people considered him to be highly intellectual; in addressing this he made the comment that he read only that which he needed for what he was writing! He wrote to educate himself and others.


For Thomas Mann the period from January, 1910, to August, 1914, was an era of growing political awareness. Hitherto his writings were those of an artist, removed from the politics of the real world and as he said, “. . .dealing with love and death, passion and control, and the relation of creativity to morality. It laid bare the workings of the conscious and unconscious life and showed the complicity of character and will in the making of an individual’s fate.” His new friend, Ernst Bertram, with whom he began correspondence in January, 1910, was a brilliant Germanist nine years younger than Mann, well-educated at Munich, Bonn, and Berlin Universities. He profoundly believed in the superiority of Germany and German culture; he was also homosexual. Mann shared a strong nationalism at this time with Bertram, and a deep friendship developed furthered by their mutual interest in Nietzsche. Mann’s work had already reflected the impact of Nietzsche who expressed the conviction that true artistry, creativity, came only through sickness. Bertram was writing a book on Nietzsche.

The origin of Reflections of a Non-political Man, begun in November, 1915, is given in several different versions. Thomas Mann said, “. . .{this was} a work of painful introspection in which I set out to come to terms with the war {World War 1} and its problems.” He considered this work as a means of clearing the deck for his preferred literary writing. He said that in the Reflections he had worked out the arguments between the characters Settembrini (the humanist) and Naphta (the representative of a rigid, authoritarian spiritualism) which then appeared in The Magic Mountain. Mann wrote to clarify his thinking—to work through arguments from both sides of a question.

He said that, “The book [Reflections] was a protest against the leveling tendencies of the rising mechanized civilization with its “revolt of the masses”, a protest against spiritual desolation, money domination, and the corruption of the politicians.” Mann does not give credit to Bertram for the production of Reflections, but it was essentially written in collaboration with him. Bernhard Böschenstein as a graduate student at Cologne University during 1955-56 met regularly with Ernst Bertram who was then a retired, reclusive, academic pleased to talk with an interested student. Bertram said that during the writing of Reflections there were frequent long telephone calls to him from Mann in which Bertram provided him with references and citations; so much so that Bertram was concerned that this would weaken the book he was writing on Nietzsche since he would also be using these citations.

Katia Mann insisted that Thomas wrote Reflections as a reply to an “attack” on him in the “Zola” essay by Heinrich who was “so oriented toward the West.” Herbert Lehnert, a Thomas Mann Scholar says, “The writing of Betrachtungen [Reflections] began in November 1915, but preparations were probably made in September, perhaps even earlier. The “Zola” essay had not been published yet, but Thomas’ attitude towards Heinrich seems to have been firmly established by that time.” The “Zola” essay, taken by Thomas as a slur cast at him by Heinrich, precipitated the Bruderzwist [split of the brothers] which stood until 1922. Bertram had sent a copy of the essay to Thomas Mann! Thomas had shifted his attachment from Heinrich to Bertram; had identified with his intense nationalistic position and perhaps felt at ease with a fellow homosexual, although this was never openly expressed by them. In December 1918 Mann became acquainted with the writings of Hans Blu’her who wrote on the “Wandervögelend” [wandering birds], the German youth movement that was a “coming of age” wandering experience of male German youth—a precursor of aspects of the Nazi movement. Blüher established the anti-semitic and homoerotic nature of this movement. From 1917 to 1919 he published a two volume work, The Role of the Erotic in the Relationship of Men. These were read by Mann (volume 2 having been given to him by Katia!) from late 1918 into 1921. On Sept. 17, 1919, he made the diary entry, “. . .read Blüher last night. I have no doubt that Reflections is “also” an expression of my sexual “Invertierheit” [a less shocking way of saying homosexuality].” We do not know what he meant by “also.” Reflections was written by Mann and Bertram together. The period 1915-1922 was the time of the closest association of Mann and Bertram.

Throughout his life Mann preferred a parliamentary monarchy; however, with the choices available, he chose the democratic form of government over fascism and all dictatorships. In “On Myself” he declared, “It had been an error of the German bourgeoisie to think that one could be a non-political man of culture. Culture falls into the greatest danger when it lacks political instinct and will—in short the democratic oath was forced to my lips and demanded that I not hold it back.” His writings and lectures during World War II demonstrate the changes that had occurred in his coming of age politically. Thomas Mann wrote to express political ideas.

Concerning Joseph and His Brothers Mann said, “. . .an old friend of my wife showed me a portfolio of illustrations of his, depicting quite prettily the story of Joseph the son of Jacob. The artist wanted me to give him a word or so of introduction to his work, and it was partly on my wish to do him this friendly favor that I looked up in my old family Bible—the graceful fable of which Goethe said: “This natural narrative is most charming, only it seems too short, and one feels inclined to put in the detail.”” George Bridges, in a recent book, observes, “When Thomas Mann began his work on his Joseph novels he was motivated to do so by the image of the beautiful seventeen-year-old youth and the erotic attraction this image exercised on him personally. . . .He undertook to retell the biblical story of Joseph in order to explore the meaning of this attraction. . .Mann discovered the framework of a metaphysics of homoerotic desire . . .including the paradoxical notion that a certain degree of suppression of the original desire is required if it is to continue to play its all-important role as a motivating force.” Here, again, Mann wrote with homoerotism as a driving force and yet converted it into a profound work which attempts to bring “modern man” in continuity with “earlier” man.


Mann’s “last” novel, Doctor Faustus the Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, was Thomas Mann’s attempt to understand Germany’s descent into Nazism. He wrote longingly about what was essentially a group of adolescent boys in their joint “Wanderings.” This was a reminiscence of the old times. The plot proceeds into the life of Adrian Leverkühn. This work shows Mann’s further drive for knowledge, his self-educating techniques with the inclusion of characters which remind-represent his old loves—Rudi Schwertfegger is Paul Ehrenberger returned. Mann sought to educate himself on music and the 12-tone scale. Here is Mann as the educator, apologist?, and memorializer.

Actually the “last” novel by Thomas Mann was Confessions of Felix Krull Confidence Man or, might this be entitled, “Confessions of Thomas Mann Confidence Man.”? Of all of Mann’s novels this is the least ponderous, it is easy to read and fun to read. It was begun in 1909, set aside, worked on and set aside four more times before World War I and then set aside until 1953, when he continued to write on from the precise point at which he had stopped 40 years previously. It is still unfinished, it carries the subtitle, The Early Years. In 1964, 11 years before the opening of the diaries, Herbert Lehnert said, “To what extent personal autobiography is an element in the earliest parts of Krull becomes clear if one compares the largely identical wording of the autobiographical presentation of the “prince-playing” of Mann as a boy with Krull’s narration of the same game as appears in (Mann’s) Collected Works. Other examples are the love of sleep—some passages are identical: the death of Krull’s [Mann’s] father with the subsequent liquidation of the business.” Mann was aware of his autobiographical tendencies, whatever he wrote of a creative nature had strong autobiographical elements. Perhaps he wished to reveal himself in this “confidence man” style as well as he did openly in his diaries.

Felix Krull may be considered the most directly autobiographical work that Mann wrote. As his last literary effort, struggled with for more than 44 years, he felt compelled to tell all about himself. His description of Felix as the elevator operator who is invited by an older, wealthy married lady to share her bed with him most likely contains the content of the fantasies Mann had with regard to his ephebe loves but never truly disclosed in his diaries except, perhaps, those which he burned. Thomas Mann (through Madame Houpfle) says, “I live in my so-called perversion, in the love of my life, that lies at the bottom of everything that I am, in the happiness and the misery of this enthusiasm with it heavy curse that nothing, nothing in the whole visible world equals the enchantment of the youthful male. I live in my love for all of you, you, you. Image of desire, whose beauty I kiss in complete abnegation of spirit. I kiss your presumptuous lips over the white teeth you show when you smile. I kiss the tender stars of your breast, the little golden hairs on the dark skin of your armpits. And how does this happen? With your blue eyes and blond hair, where do you get this coloring, this tint of light bronze?” And there is more. But, at the close of the book, having attended a bull fight and greatly admired the young toreador, with a detailed description of his body and face and grace, Krull (Mann) mysteriously ends the scene as the toreador departs with, “. . .later, under another name, in a different role, and a part of a double image (??) he was to reappear in my life. But of that in its proper place.” Mann did not live to finish the novel and we are left with the puzzle of that statement. Perhaps a confession at long last of actual physical homosexual experience?

What, then can be said as to why Thomas Mann wrote? The deepest unconscious motivations cannot be determined. However, from early in his life he had an attitude to greatness, a frequent quality in persons who indeed become great. With his ironic distance he could deal, “. . .with love and death, passion and control, and the relation of creativity to morality.” He used his acute awareness of his native culture and civilization to record the changes, the decline, in their inherent values and as his political awareness grew, he was able to communicate these changes in a masterful way. Despite the world-wide acclaim for his writings and the success and prominence which they brought, Thomas Mann lived a life of limited happiness. He was beset by frequent illnesses, tormented by his attraction to young men, and the ever-present guilt which that engendered. With his capacity for growth and change he utilized his narcissism and faults to create great literature which helped him to maintain his psychological stability. Erika, his favorite daughter said, “he lived to write—not to write to live.”

Perhaps most important he wrote to express his creativity in telling a story because “it was there” and in so doing it gave him pleasure, “. . .the clearest feeling of transcendance, a sovereign sense of being borne up.”


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William Gundry's picture
William Gundry · 6 years ago

I am drawn to Thomas Mann for a variety of reasons, but also by the dubious notion that my son's suicide and some of my other children's disintegration was my lately self realized complexity.


I would like to join the discussion with this entry narrative.


Thank You


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