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Thomas Mann: The Artist and Death in Tristan and Tonio Kroger

Updated on January 17, 2012

I join these two stories by Thomas Mann together because they share themes: the relationship of the outsider-artist to the society he/she inhabits, and the decadence, the sickliness, of art in its relationship to death. That this death and beauty connection could be, and to some extent always was, an affectation, Thomas Mann was well aware, as he illustrates in "Tristan", but there is also an element of truth in the affectation. The audience may enjoy beauty, but the artist is processing it, analyzing its elements from a remove, and thereby killing it, freezing it, giving it the permanency of a crypt.

"Tristan" refers to the legendary lovers, Tristan and Isolde, of the Arthurian epic cycle. It is an illicit love, and one that ends, as such passions must, in tragedy. Mann's "Tristan" is not set in legendary times, however, but in a sanitarium for tuburcular and gently mentally fragile people, all of whom pay to submit to the regimen of the sanitarium's doctor. He guarantees their health, and when he cannot he passes them off on a subordinate of no interest, Dr. Muller. Dr. Muller attends to those minor cases which do not need the aid of the great doctor for their recovery and to the terminal, whom the doctor cannot save and continued association with their cases would be detrimental to his reputation as a savior. The sanitarium of Einfried will be our substitute fantasy castle where love and tragedy develop.

The lovers are not exact matches to their legendary parallels either. Our Tristan is a writer, author of a single novel, an aesthete German in the dress of Oscar Wilde. In Germany, Oscar Wilde became a symbol, both the being of and the evidence for, of decadence and cultural degeneration through the work of Max Nordau (Degeneration , 1892) and Hermann Bahr (1894), who called Oscar 'the prophet of decadence'. Richard Strauss's opera for Wilde's Salome , completed in 1905, entered the public scene already carrying the decadence of the famous Irishmen with it. Therefore, it is natural that in a short story about art, and art specifically in the decadent mode that identifies with death, would have at its center a novelist who in appearance and conversation makes a meek attempt to be Oscar Wilde, one Detlev Spinell, nicknamed the 'Rotten Infant' by another sanitarium resident. He is not a very convincing knight, nor a very convinced one, for Detlev has committed himself to the regimen prescribed by the good doctor in a half-hearted attempt to return to health, to govern himself according to the rules of conventional society.

Then there is Isolde and her King Mark, in this case a middle-class woman, Gabriele, and her wholesaler husband, Anton Kloterjahn. Gabriele is delivered to the care of Dr. Leander due to a trouble with her throat, having about her the charming delicacy and dependence of the invalid. (Dr. Leander's name, by the way, evokes another famous lovers' tragedy, that of Hero and Leander of Greek myth). Detlev is drawn to Gabriele, re-making her into the beauty-death of his aesthetic desires, and regretting her attachment to life, her divorce from art. He leads Gabriele to think of herself as a being separate from her connections, from those relationships that make her a woman of the bourgeoisie: her marriage, her motherhood, her respectable life.

Detlev tempts her into revealing herself to him, and so she shares with him the story of her life before marriage, when she lived with her father, a businessman but also a violinist, playing the piano, and joining her friends in the garden around a fountain. It is a terribly mundane life, but it is one that Detlev transforms for himself, and for Gabriele, into an enchanted paradise preceding her abduction into the world of terrible vitality that is her businessman-husband's. He seduces her into returning to art, playing Chopin, the tubercular Polish pianist, and then Wagner's Tristan and Isolde , with its unification of love-beauty-death in a finale of self-destruction and immortality.

After her performance of Wagner, Gabriele's health begins to fail. She is transferred into the hands of Dr. Muller, clearly indicating that, since she is not getting better and has not become a minor case, that she will die. Dr. Muller summons the lady's husband, her infant son, and the nanny, dressed in plaid and gold. Detlev has no more contact with his beloved, even as she enters the state that would be to him most beautiful, the dying Isolde. Instead, he writes a letter to her husband proclaiming his superior understanding of Gabriele, his superior claim upon her, and berating him for taking Gabriele from the enchanted fountain into the vital world, which was never for her. Although Kloterjahn is in the sanitarium, easily available to Detlev, the artist mails the letter, only to be confronted by Kloterjahn in person. Kloterjahn treats Detlev and his theories with contempt, and the reader, I think, sympathizes with his contempt, for Detlev's assumptions of true understanding, his claim for death upon the young Gabriele, are morbid at best. What is this love that hastens the lover to death? Is it love at all? Or is it art acting on a living soul, stripping it of what the artist has deemed inessential--married love, affection, motherhood, life? In the midst of their interview, Gabriele worsens, perhaps dies, and Kloterjahn is called to her.

Detlev leaves for a walk, encountering on the garden path the young Anton, Gabriele's son, and his nanny. The child's animal vitality, its joy in being and wholeness in being, disturb the artist, perhaps in its disjunction with dying Gabriele, but more likely as part of his general rejection of life and the living as a whole. And so the story ends, with Tristan alive on a garden path, and Isolde dead in the arms of King Mark.

I have not conveyed here the delicacy of humor and observation in Mann's writing. Detlev is a comic figure, but also a tragic one, with his worship of beauty, his reliance on things to provide him with inner resources, and his failure to be a knight in the cause of art. He is, after all is said, only a dilettante, playing the artist in the sanitarium to an audience of the sick. Gabriele's great weakness is to take him seriously, and perhaps of all only Anton Kloterjahn the elder has a healthy reaction to him.

"Tonio Kruger" is another story of an artist, but this artist is not a false one. He bears the artist's mark of Cain, an element in his spirit, his will, that alienates him from the bourgeois society from which he comes and which he desires to impress. It is present in his first loves, for a schoolmate who is the popular, healthy, German male, Hans Hansen, and a girl, 'Blonde Inge', of the same type. Both are beyond him, unable to share in the life of the mind that he desires to give them: Hans will not read Schiller, and he cannot share Theodor Storm with Inge. His home city itself is too narrow for him, stifles him and constricts him. The deaths of his father and his grandmother, the remarriage of his foreign-born mother and her departure for the south, frees him of the city. He leaves to pursue the power of words and imagination, finds it, and becomes a famous writer in Munich.

Tonio, too, accepts the equation of art and death proposed by Detlev Spinell in "Tristan", but more subtly and with greater explanation. In order to create, the artist must be other than human, must be separate from human concerns and common human perceptions of respectability and propriety. This is necessary to his art, to his ability to create for others with attention to style, to the game of words and the wiles of representation. True, deeply felt emotion does not produce art. Everything for the artist occurs and exists at a distance. The artist is, then, in a very particular fashion on the side of death, witnessing life without being alive himself.

After an absence of eleven years, Tonio returns home, passing through his old town on his way to Copenhagen in the north, a direction which is identified with health, with naturalness. In the north, he finds peace of a kind, communing with the nature of his childhood memory and the quiet of the northlands. He is reunited with Hans and Inge, in a way, for they come to the inn where he is staying as part of a party, and he watches them. He renews his faith in their health, in their vigor, in their value, and makes an affirmation of his faith in himself as an "artist with a bad conscience", loving these healthy, vigorous, living men and women, even if he cannot be one of them:

it is good and fruitful. There is longing in it and somber jealousy and a tiny bit of contempt and an entire paradise of love.

Tonio the artist, then, lives and works in the tension between the living and the dead, in the realm of impossibilities, communicating across the lines.

Mann identifies the artist and art with an unhealthy state of the spirit. Tonio does not want Hans and Inge in their perfection as living creatures to fall to art and enter a world other than vital and healthy. There can be no healthy society in which all men and women are artists, but that would be a sanitarium in which even the doctors are sick. The artist expresses things healthy men cannot express, and that Tonio hopes they do not feel, but that nevertheless exist and are real in the society in which the artist lives. There are men who play at being artists, the aesthetes like Spinell, and then there are the helpless artists who, despite their desire for another, normal existence, cannot be other than they are, can only be creative or sterile.

I do not agree wholly with Mann's view of the artist, but it is very expertly expressed and argued in the persons of Tonio and Spinell. I can agree that some artists can be nothing other than what they are. Successful or unsuccessful, paid or unpaid, they would still be distinct and separate from the people around them, they would still create and work. But is this true of artists as a class? I don't think so. I don't really believe that anything is true of people as a class, as a category. Tendencies do not define, they merely indicate a range of possibilities. I am not fond of the art+death equation associated with analyses of decadence and the fin de siecle of the nineteenth century. This definition of art and the artists draws on a very specific social condition that obtained then, and does not now. It is part of the old kit of identifying the artist, along with the artist as madman or madwoman, the artist as junkie, and the artist as champion of the rising middle class. All of those masques of the artist have had their day and are gone. I do believe, however, in the masque, and the masquerade of manners and conventions that permeate society and play a dominant role in our relationships to one another. If you pay very close attention to yourself and to the people around you, you may see people changing costume before your eyes in accordance with the situation, with the face they want you to see, with the face they believe you want to see. That is a necessary part of our social reality as humans, this world of signs and symbols by which we recognize one another and allow our fellow humans to categorize us as friends, as enemies, as indifferent entities passing through.


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      Aaaaaaaa 3 years ago

      Fantastic essay.