Alex Ross on “Mario and the Magician”
Day two of #MutuallyMann starts with another exciting video message!
“An allegory of art and the artist” – Alex Ross, music critic for the The New Yorker, enriches our discussion by reflecting on the motif of the “Zauberer” (magician) and the power of art to realize grotesque, sometimes even destructive energies.
4 thoughts on “”
Eight years ago, some lines you wrote in The New Yorker helped me explain myself to myself and others, in a way that I also recognize in Thomas Mann. You wrote: “Gay taste [“kitsch” as per D. Halperin] is… probably linked to incipient feelings of dissimilarity from one’s peers. This alienation can happen in class, or in the locker room, or at a friend’s house when straight porn is unveiled. However these experiences unfold, they have a lasting impact, equivalent to a trauma with no visible cause. One common response is preemptive withdrawal. The boy buries himself in some obscure aesthetic pursuit. One self-help book calls it ‘velvet rage.’ My ignorance of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ didn’t save me from becoming a typical case: at the age of ten, I developed a peculiar predilection for Austro-German symphonies.” In my case it was gender-queerness rather than sexual queerness, and I turned in my youth to the classical guitar and now in my adulthood to an equally esoteric fanaticism for German Lieder; but the point is analogous, and gets as well at my preoccupation with Thomas Mann as “the poet of the half-open closet,” in Anthony Heilbut’s words. For me the best example is Der Zauberberg’s Settembrini, whose case I find more sympathetic and heart-wrenching than many readers seem to (even if he is a dreadful bigot). Queerness cannot be spoken or lived safely, so it must be couched in something else, a margin, an eddy in the current of popular taste or opinion, something remote to those around you—in Settembrini’s case, Italian belles lettres and neo-Enlightenment-style humanist “pedagogy.” Aschenbach’s and Zeitblom’s queer classicizing also come to mind. Mario is a less obvious case at first glance, but Cipolla’s domination tactics do take the form of escalating encroachments on the young male body. It’s not clear to me whether Mann is gesturing at some queer poetics of fascism, or perhaps simply making his usual partial-cameo in his own work. In any case, one wonders what Cipolla and Felix Krull would make of one another.
All this to say, thanks belatedly for that 2012 article, and for ongoing caring attention to Lieder, Mann, queerness, and (I might as well add here) the Frankfurt School. Seeing this constellation illuminated in your work has helped me see how major pieces of my own life fit together. I say so here because I suspect there are other margin-dwellers, symphony-enthusiasts, Mann readers, and queers of all stripes who may relate.
It occurs to me as an afterthought that, if there is a queer poetics of fascism at work in Mann, it surely has to do with Zauber and Bezauberung as described in this short talk. The very person of Thomas Mann, himself known to friends and family as der Zauberber or even simply Z. on occasion, is perhaps the key example, given his honest refusal (as in “Brüder Hitler” or “Deutschland und die Deutschen”) to disclaim all psychophysical identification with national socialism.
As Alex Ross reminds us, Mann’s “Mario and the Magician” is a political allegory containing a warning about the ideological risks of the Wagnerian legacy. Despite the importance of compassion in Wagner’s final drama Parsifal, its closing tableau, with a larger-than-life redeemer figure restoring the threatened Grail, presents a utopian scene that leaves itself open to the dangers of ideological appropriation. Some propagandists at the time envisioned Hitler in a Parsifal-like role as redeemer of Germany.
A master ironist, Mann delights in inverting and deflating Wagnerian symbols. In place of a utopian conclusion, Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain ends with the demise of the main figure, Hans Castorp, in the dismal trenches of World War I. Wagner’s Parsifal drama turns on a big central seduction scene between Parsifal and Kundry, an encounter linked to his quest for the Holy Spear. The parallel seduction scene in Mann’s novel is the fleeting one-night-stand of Hans Castorp and Clavdia Chauchat, an erotic encounter initiated by his return to her of another elongated but much smaller (phallic) symbol: her tiny silver pencil.
As the fascist danger grew, Mann expanded his literary use of irony. In “Mario and the Magician,” the story’s climax comes when Mario–momentarily forgetting that he cannot trust Cipolla–kisses the magician when he thinks he is kissing his beloved Silvestra. The motive of a perverted kiss is lodged in Wagner’s final drama, for Kundry acts in service to the demonic Klingsor, and the success of her seduction would doom Parsifal. In Mann’s ironic inversion of this idea in “Mario and the Magician,” it is the very success of Cipolla’s perverse “seduction” of Mario that recoils on the magician, as Mario responds to the shameful deception and punishes the culprit. Cipolla’s success is “a monstrous moment, grotesque and thrilling, the moment of Mario’s bliss,” but triggers “an end of horror, a fatal end,” which is “yet a liberation.”
Dear RJ, thank you so much for your extraordinarily kind and thoughtful comments! Your proposal of a possible “queer poetics of fascism” in Mario aligns with my own thinking. I was in fact planning to make a further comment on this very aspect of the story, but became distracted by other work this week. Cipolla’s preying upon the young males makes me think of the homoerotic aspect of Wandervogel Kameradschaft and of Ernst Röhm’s SA. Mann was undoubtedly aware of this dynamic, and read Hans Blüher on the subject of homoerotic male-bonding. Extending the Wagner connection — tenuous in this case, I know — I think of how Nietzsche and others thought that Wagner had an “unmanning” effect on male youth. What to make of all this, I’m not sure. I wonder whether Cipolla is a really a pure symbol of dictatorial charisma or whether he is more a chaos-sowing force who exposes (at the expense of his own life, to be sure) the dynamics underlying the manipulation of crowds and individuals.