Why Thomas Mann Wrote

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.

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