In Phaedrus, which inspired Death in Venice, Plato writes that when the lover “beholds a god-like face or a physical form which truly reflects ideal beauty, he first of all shivers and experiences something of the dread which the vision itself inspired; next he gazes upon it and worships it as if it were a god, and, if he were not afraid of being thought an utter madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a divinity.” This passage, charged with powerful tensions, contrasts the vision of an ideal beauty, a godlike face and body, a divine and beloved image, worthy of worship, to the shattering effect it has on the lover who perceives it: shivers, dread, fear, madness, self-abasement and self-sacrifice.
Plato’s thought also explains a great deal about Mann’s homoerotic life. As an adolescent and adult he fell in love with several handsome boys and men, but never had sexual relations with any of them. His bisexual Sehnsucht gave him penetrating insight into human nature and enabled him to create some of the most interesting characters in modern literature. He transformed his idealized longing for young men into Hans Hansen in “Tonio Kröger,” Pribislav Hippe in The Magic Mountain, Rudi Schwerdtfeger in Doctor Faustus, and the eponymous hero of Felix Krull. In 1981 Richard Winston noted the pattern of sexual displacement in Mann’s life and art. Tonio’s attachment to Hans Hansen is soon transmuted into his love for Ingeborg Holm. Hans Castorp’s memories of Pribislav are changed into his infatuation for Clavdia Chauchat. Adrian Leverkühn’s relationship with Rudi is followed by his decision to marry Marie Godeau.
Hermann Kurzke, who never mentions Plato (the only index reference is to a blank page), has an obsessive, even prurient interest in Mann’s suppressed passion and celibate homoeroticism. He identifies the real models for Mann’s fictional characters, nails everything down to biographical fact, and tries to “out” Mann with what he concedes are “biographically unreliable” novels. In Death in Venice Mann warned that a knowledge of the sources of inspiration undermines the effect of art. Kurzke’s reductive method demeans the power of Mann’s imagination and diminishes his struggle to sublimate the forbidden desires that were essential to his fiction. Mann gloried in the irony of his own self-abasement before the beautiful and beloved but shallow and selfish creatures. In the doomed love of the suspect and anti-social pederast, Gustave von Aschenbach, Mann found the perfect pattern for the artist’s desperate struggle to recapture the ideal form of sensual beauty, to unite passion with thought, grace with wisdom, the real with the ideal.
Kurzke’s Teutonic, pedantic, long-winded and heavy-handed study, moving from work to work and theme to theme in short, discrete feuilletons (with ponderous titles and sudden transitions), is literary criticism dressed up as biography. The Chronicle at the head of each section provides the skeleton of biographical facts, which is not fleshed out in the text. The chronology is chaotic: Mann’s move to Switzerland in 1952 is mentioned just after his birth in 1875 and “The Path to Marriage” comes after he’s actually married. Kurzke introduces important characters—the childhood friend Otto Grautoff, the poet Ernst Bertram, the critic Paul Amman, and Agnes Meyer, whose husband was the publisher of the Washington Post, as well as “Cynthia” and “Franzl” without explaining who they are. He claims that Mann “had no real friends,” but ignores his vital friendships with Hesse, Freud, Einstein, the conductor Bruno Walter, the philosopher Erich Kahler, and the classicist Karl Karényi. Kurzke does not describe how Erika Mann rescued the manuscript of the Joseph novels after her father’s house in Munich had been seized by the Gestapo, nor Mann’s dangerous operation for lung cancer in 1946, which tested his characteristic “sympathy for death” while he was writing Doctor Faustus.