“Ragazzo di Vita or The Young Man as Political and Erotic Savior” by Katharina Sykora

Thomas Mann Fellow and art historian Katharina Sykora states that “we become witnesses of a blatant gender inversion.“ In her text, she takes a closer look at the homoerotic desires and sexual implications in the novella.

Sergio Citti in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first feature film “Accattone” (1961), which was losely based on his novel “Ragazzi di Vita” (1955).” 

The young man as erotic object of the novel’s main character is a central figure in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. It has inspired a number of authors to reflect on both Mann’s personal homoerotic predilections (which he has written about in his diaries) and the way he transformed them into literature. The question of connecting or disconnecting biography and text have been part of these discourses.[1]

In Mario and The Magician, Thomas Mann explicitly describes the first-person narrator as one who is analyzing his own ambiguous response to the magician as being both disgusted and seduced. His response to the young men Torre di Venere is no less ambivalent, but in another realm: They appear to him as physically strong, in an unrefined way beautiful, but culturally ‘raw’ and socially ‘brutal.‘ Mario as one of them is a partial exception having close contact with the civilized world of the summer guests by serving them as a waiter in the café named ‘Esquisito.‘ Thomas Mann creates the relation of the narrator to these people as getting close to them through thorough observation, and distancing himself from them by negative characterizations from a superior point of view. Thereby the narrator puts himself into a position of self-control through self-reflection quite similar to that of the author. Immerging himself into the uncanny hypnotic atmosphere of Cipolla’s human circus by describing it minutely and then withdrawing from it by coldly dissecting the scene is a rhetoric that creates the very thrill for us readers. This is especially the case in the last scene, when Mario becomes the central figure.

Mario had been casually mentioned earlier in the novel but is characterized by Thomas Mann and his narrator extensively only in the moment when Cipolla calls him to the stage. By then the magician’s power has seemingly reached its climax letting a group of somnambulants dance wildly without pause. The description of Mario starts with the aversion of the young man against the demand of the magician to join him, followed by reluctant giving in; an obedience that the narrator interprets as a deformation professionelle of the waiter following the calls of his clientele. Thus, the contamination with the civilizing guests of Torre di Venere make Mario susceptible to Cipolla’s seduction. This psychologically subtle comment stays in sharp contrast to the subsequent drastic description of Mario’s features with the low front, thick lips, heavy eye lids but surprisingly fine hands. It creates at first a physical repulsion and then a tactile closeness to the figure when the narrator ends his characterization of Mario by remembering that he had liked being served by his hands.

When Mario enters Cipolla’s stage, the magician approaches him in the same manner as the narrator. He is telling him that he had observed him from a distance since a long time and acknowledged his admirable features and excellent qualities. This gaze from a distance is accompanied by addressing Mario as “Ragazzo mio,” a notion that expresses familiarity if not intimacy and possessiveness. The gesture of his forefinger with which Cipolla allures Mario to come physically closer and closer until he is in the reach of his touch is emblematic for the evil sorceress in German fairytales trapping her victims. It turns the gesture of pointing out a faraway desired object into snagging a subject that finally submits to the willful wish of the one that calls him.

This is not only a submission that can be interpreted politically (Cipolla shows the Fascist salute each time Mario loses a part of his sovereignty) but also an erotic submission: At the culmination of his seduction we become witnesses of a blatant gender inversion that Cipolla performs when he detects that Mario is caught in an unfortunate love to a young woman named Silvestra. First, he announces being her accomplice reassuring him that she truly loves him back (“Wir wissen es besser, der Cipolla und sie”), then he uses the notion of ‘putting himself into her shoes,’ enabling him to speak in the third person ‘in her place.’ The last and crucial change, however, occurs when he turns to speaking in the first person as if he would be Silvestra herself, now addressing Mario directly. This role change from advocate and representative of Mario’s adored one to a surrogate of her shows the victory of his hypnotic and erotic power over Mario. This finds its proof when the young man becomes ‘his boy’ (“ragazzo mio”) by giving him a kiss that was meant for Silvestra.

In this scene Cipolla shows that he can peel off his crippled body and become any love object in the eye of the person in front of him if only he or she submits totally to his or her passionate imagination. A diabolic succubus, Cipolla not only makes Mario into a puppet of his political demonstration but also a victim of his sexual desire.

But Thomas Mann turns the leave at the end of his novel. Mario does not return to the group of village youngsters in the audience that had brutally commented on his disgrace, but – in an action of powerful masculinity (“in voller Fahrt warf er sich mit auseinandergerissenen Beinen herum, schleuderte den Arm empor“) – he kills both his seducer and his own imagination of a loving Silvestra that the magician had offered him as her impersonator.

This ending allows us to read Mario and the Magician in a threefold way: Cipolla and Mario being the mirrors of the narrator’s and Thomas Mann’s undecided political attitude, ambivalent homoerotic inclination and suggestive (hyper)realism; which all three are put into question at the same time. The novel is at once: an allegory and analysis of seductive dictatorship, a reflection on Mann’s poetic and poetolocial experiment with a ‘hallucinating realism,’ and both a homoerotic camouflage and a homoerotic confession. And like at the end of a fairytale, Mario is the savior. He kills the dictator, frees the hallucinating mind, and replaces ‘feminine’ passivity through ‘male’ action.

Two decades earlier young Tadzio in Death in Venice had remained a static figure: the perfect imago of the eternal ephebe. Twenty five years later Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s Ragazzi di vita became the successors of the young men of Torre di Venere. For the Italian author, they were the saviors of an archaic moral and an unconscious (homo)erotic ambiguity as Thomas Mann had described it in Mario and the Magician, only that they had moved to the suburbs of Rome and were now submitting to the dictatorship of consumerism.

[1]See among others: Karl Werner Böhm: Zwischen Selbstzucht und Verlangen. Thomas Mann und das Stigma Homosexualität, Würzburg 1991. Heinrich Detering: Das offene Geheimnis. Zur literarischen Produktivität eines Tabus von Winckelmann bis Thomas Mann, Göttingen 20132. Eric Engel: Thomas Mann: Homoerotik in Leben und Werk,Berlin 2015).

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