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.
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.