In the May and the June issues of 1938, the question of what to do with Thomas Mann’s novels was a lively one for the Partisan Review writers. What increased their interest in Mann’s work in that year was not only the crashing of Europe into Fascism, but the journal’s stance that while the rout of bourgeois society was to be the utopian end of capitalism’s crises, its aesthetic achievements seemed, according to Rhav’s classicism, and others, liable to mastery by revolutionary politics and through re-appropriation by revolutionary Modernists.
You may remember William Phillips’s discussion essay, “Thomas Mann: Humanism in Exile,” which was the lead political essay in Partisan Review,
Volume IV, No.6, May, 1938. Thomas Mann
My complaint with that was the way Phillips used the slogan of ‘science’ as a cure for the romanticism — in Mann’s case — of his focus on the role of the Artist as exemplary figure of decay. With hindsight I can see how Phillips has already understood the position that Troy is going take, and as a response Phillips squeezes his an alysis into a contest between marxist science against artistic self-annihilation. Thomas Mann had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, and now, 9 years later, critics wondered what would happen to him and to his work. He fled to the USA in 1939, and became a United States citizen in 1944.
In “Thomas Mann: Myth and Reason,” the next article in the June 1938 issue William Troy places Mann in the line of the mittel-european ‘masters,’ Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, and Wagner. But, he acknowledges, contemporary writers and thinkers don’t like this reading of Mann because it suggests that it sounds too much like the idealizing myth-making of fascism. Troy aims to indemnify him from that charge by surrounding Mann’s work up through Magic Mountain with Freud’s analytical and Jung’s more controversial ideas about myths and the psyche. Troy tells us :“We live in an age whose atmosphere has become so charged with the sulphurous fumes of conflicting mythologies that reason has less and less air in which to respire.” However, and this is the theme that Troy pursues throughout Mann’s published work to date (1938). “that rather than being inconsistent with his long devotion to the cause of reason, Mann ‘s turning to the myth(why does he call it ‘the’ myth – it scares me.)in his new work represents a synthesis between reason and experience that is full of the highest possibilities for our time.” And “we are confronted with two orders of meaning – the logical and the symbolic, as if the dialectic interplay between the two constitutes his work as a whole.”
It is pretty hard here in 2017 to stay interested in Troy’s often,(albeit acute), remarks about the structure of Mann’s heroes, anti-heroes, and plots when we are living now in Lucretian times, when the classical sublime has not only relinquished its claims to beauty and to truths, but also, instead of aspiring to what now look like insipid concepts of wholeness entirely unimaginable to our contemporary and alert persons, has become the world of action and ideas without outcomes, and usually with de-creation as an intellectual desideratum.
So Troy walks us through a life history that is a romantic myth cycle: in which the hero: “Is that lonely and neglected figure, that “marked man,” that black-sheep of modern bourgeois society to which he has referred as the ‘artist-type.’ The early stories of Mann are also marked by symbolic disfigurations that manifest the anti-ness of the artist-hero. Troy gives these carbuncled and maimed characters the status of being the excrescences of Mann’s own immature imagination, “writing at the level of the abyss,” and kin to the sadism and masochism explored by Mario Praz, in The Romantic Agony. Les jeux sont faits. In Buddenbrooks Mann cuts off symbolic deformity from the surfaces of the body, and sinks it into the psychic pathology, within the agent, and within the family, and within bourgeois society as a whole. The generalisation of disease and corruption that Mann undertakes is returned to the reader as an aesthetic deviation as well: this is the world of Death in Venice: Here Troy introduces what James Burnham will call an ‘anthropological approach’ and sees Aschenbach as engaged in a delayed adolescent initiation rite. So it is that the route to wholeness is mapped out, and Troy makes Mann one who belongs to the formalism of mythic completion. Now that the artist belongs to a formalism of completion, things begin develop and conclude, unlike life and literature as we know it now.
“At once it becomes obvious that he could never have forsworn the abyss because he has never known it, or he would not be so shocked and disgusted by his observations on the way. Aschenbach becomes the victim of an infantile regression: the mind’s own tendency to project images of its unappeasable love of perfection.”
Troy is on to something here. The door opens to continual depletions, into a world distorted and always partially wrong. “As the object of desire, however, Tadzio can only be frustrating, absurd, impossible, the mere dream of him as such leading his worshipper straight into the depths of the abyss.”
When Troy gives to Mann the certainty of a transcendent conclusion, a cleansing of the corruption, it falls flat in our century. Troy has Mann fit his cycle with a dream of transcendence, but offers nothing more substantial to either sustain or demonstrate the claim of wholeness. But really what survived of wholeness in 1938? Not a lot.
To read the second part of Troy’s discussion go to: