Tuesday, 20 January 2015

by Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann (1875 – 1955) is a very well known German novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 1929.   He opposed Hitler from exile in Switzerland.

The story is about the German romantic poet and dramatist, Friedrich Schiller (1759- 1805) and refers from time to time to  Schiller’s friend and rival Goethe, perhaps the most famous of all German poets.  Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy has become well known from its setting in Beethoven’s 8th Symphony.

Goethe and Schiller, by L. Mühlbach
Schiller, in the story, laments what is sometimes called a ‘writer’s block’.  He is having trouble with current work, both getting on with it, and having sufficient confidence in it to do that.  The play is probably  the trilogy, Wallenstein.    He is emotionally drained by his inability to get the play right, also to get down to it again for fear of failure.  Schiller, also, is ill with a chronic lung disease.   In the background is his idea that his creativity is somehow bound up with, perhaps even caused by,  his sickness.

He criticises himself for inaction, and then laments that his work is not good enough, and contrasts himself with Goethe whom he represents as finding inspiration easily and fluently.

A good deal of the story deals with the relationship of creativity and suffering, the greater the suffering the greater the creativity, and then the creativity turns into a kind of joy.  But he also has doubts about that, whether that’s just fine words.

Towards the end he looks down at his wife and thinks about the way in which his love for her has to be shared with his love for his art, and perhaps it deprives her his fullest devotion.  Looking tenderly down at his sleeping wife seems to revives him and he is able at last to finish what he’s writing. 

He is able to go down into the area belong his consciousness and to dredge up things from the depths of the chaos there, to create art orphically (in the manner of the mythical poet Orpheus) out of that very chaos.   His words at one point echo the words of Genesis where God creates the world out of chaos

His concerns are typically those of the romantic to whom the process of composition, and the psychology of art, are of prime importance, placing art on a higher plane, and making it different from, anything else.   His last remarks about shaping chaos will remind the English reader, also,  of Kubla Khan,  Coleridge’s poem about inspiration.   Coleridge, of course, was a student of German romantic philosophers.   In Kubla Khan Coleridge describes a ‘sacred river’ coming up from under the earth rather like an earthquake, and this in turn is like the inspired words of the poet bursting up from his unconscious mind.

Besides talking about inspiration Schiller also talks about ‘greatness’, being a great artist, and how a great artist gains his greatness from his suffering.   He suggests that his agony is primarily to do with with completely his play so that it will show his greatness.  

One of the points worth talking about, perhaps, is the question of egotism.   How far does his individualism tip over into a form of egotism?   Then again, how far is it true that great artists always suffer?   And what exactly does he mean by the kind of mental suffering he talks of but does not describe?   What exactly is it that Mann describes in the last paragraph?

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