Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Themes of Exile in Thomas Mann's "Voyage with Don Quixote"

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Themes of Exile in Thomas Mann's "Voyage with Don Quixote"

Article excerpt

On May 19, 1934, Thomas Mann began his first journey to America at the request of Alfred Knopf to promote a volume of his new book, Joseph and his Brothers.(1) He took with him Tieck's translation of Don Quixote, in four volumes,(2) and a firm commitment to values best described as liberally humanistic--values which would receive reexamination during the voyage. Mann, who had already moved to Zurich to avoid possible repercussions from his anti-fascistic sentiments, was a reluctant and ambivalent exile from his native land. He shared his voyage with refugees fleeing the countries that had originated and nurtured the very values that Mann exemplified. Their flight and Mann's uncertain relation to his homeland give the author the opportunity to reflect on the cultural and political changes ushered in by the rise of the totalitarian regimes that would eventually transform Europe into a slaughterhouse. But that is in the future. What Mann sees in 1934 is a regime in Germany tottering on shaky legs, doomed to fall in a relatively brief time. Nevertheless, he must ask himself what all this fulmination means. Are these changes in Europe the cultural consequences of those values that Mann believes are the foundation of his being? Can he distance himself, and those he believes to be true Europeans, from the fascist claims to be the logical inheritors of properly European values--what Mann calls the "traditions of my blood"?

The catalyst for this self-examination is the physical voyage itself and the reflective journey prompted by Mann's reading of Don Quixote. The comparison of the reading of a book to a journey is an old, tired metaphor drawn by Mann himself when he speaks of "this ocean of a book" (330). However, our interest lies in the passage at the end of the essay where Mann describes his arrival in New York as greeted by a dream brought about by the quieting of the ship's engines. Mann's dream is the focal point of our reflections. The identification of Don Quixote with Zarathustra and the portrayal of the latter as his creator, Nietzsche, the advocate of transvaluing all traditional, Christian moral values, are the culmination of Mann's cultural self-examination. It is his dream that points us toward the meaning of the essay, a reflection on the morality of exile.(3)

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In Ronald Hayman's biography of Mann he maintains that Mann wrote "Voyage with Don Quixote" in lieu of a political essay. Hayman declares the essay to be "light-hearted" and, at the same time, a reflection of Mann's fear of voicing resistance to the fascists (414). We agree that the essay concerns fascism. However, it is neither "light-hearted" nor the apolitical travel essay that Hayman believes it to be. Rather, Mann's account of his journey to America is a reflection on properly European values as antithetical to fascism. His discussion of Cervantes and his linking of Don Quixote and Zarathustra are attempts to show that the exiles of Mann's time retain the right to be called true Europeans.

Mann, a writer gloriously steeped in the values of liberal humanism, recognizes his own de facto exile from a homeland whose contemporary political climate he sees as a direct affront to the traditions and concerns that are his foundation: "And home: what does that mean anyhow? Does it mean Kussnacht near Zurich, where I have lived for a year and am more of a guest than at home? ...Does it mean further back, my house in Herzogpark, Munich, where I thought to end my days and which has now revealed itself as nothing but a temporary refuge and pied-a-terre? Home--that must mean even further back, to my childhood home, the parental house at Lubeck, which still stands at present and yet is so deep-sunken into the past?" (337). For Mann home is also the locus of the "twin pillars" of European civilization, Christianity and classical antiquity. His essay is marked by ruminations on the European character as the direct result of the influence of these mainstays. …

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