Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition

Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition

Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition

Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition

Excerpt

At his death in 1955, Thomas Mann had a unique reputation. He was acknowledged not merely as the greatest modern German novelist, but as something like a living sum of German culture.

In part this view derived from his work. It was markedly intellectual and rich in literary and philosophical allusion. It rested, as he often pointed out, on foundations in the art and thought of the nineteenth century--Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wagner. From his middle years, Mann began to link himself with the greatest figure in German literary culture, Goethe, and eventually celebrated a 'mystical union' with him in the novel Lotte in Weimar, where quotation and allusion, from being a favoured technique, became the continuous substance. As a constant background there were also Mann's essays on German writers and thinkers from the eighteenth down to the twentieth centuries, all of them establishing some intimate affinity with himself and suggesting that his work had systematically drawn nourishment from the traditional canon. All this declared him a poeta doctus.

History made him more. It sent him into exile and created a situation in which he could speak the words 'Wo ich bin ist die deutsche Kultur' (Where I am is German culture), not as an arrogant personal claim but as a necessary political act. For the Nazis had narrowed the definition of what was German and what was culture to something crude and chauvinistic; Mann was denying their competence. His declaration must be read with the emphasis on 'ich', and that 'ich' understood in a representative sense. He was not making a complacent claim but stating a programme, anxious that his and other émigrés'

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