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Mann re-Joyces: The Dissemination of Myth in Ulysses and Joseph, Finegans Wake and Doctor Faustus

From: Comparative Critical Studies
Volume 3, Issue 3, 2006
pp. 269-290 | 10.1353/ccs.2007.0014

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The question of James Joyce's influence on Thomas Mann is still controversial. Peter Egri claimed in the seventies that it was considerable; he was promptly contradicted by critics such as Michael Palencia-Roth and Stephen Cerf who denied the existence of any such influence. More recently, Robert Weninger and Eva Schmidt-Schütz have tried to develop a more differentiated approach to the problem. The facts of the matter are as follows: on the one hand, Thomas Mann repeatedly claimed that his English was not advanced enough to read Joyce's works; in Mann's library in Zurich there is no copy of Ulysses and the copy of Finnegans Wake appears untouched. On the other hand, Mann's diary entries for February 1942 reveal that he carefully read Harry Levin's groundbreaking critical study of James Joyce, published in 1941. A letter of 1944 also shows that Mann read at least some of Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson's A Skeleton Key To Finnegans Wake, published that year. So if it is clear that his direct knowledge of Joyce was in all likelihood very limited, it is equally clear that Mann viewed Joyce as both a rival and a kindred spirit, and that he acquired and seriously engaged with the key early works of secondary literature on Joyce as they appeared. The dates here are significant. Between 1936 and 1939 Mann wrote Lotte in Weimar featuring the interior monologue of Goethe himself, although there is no evidence that Mann had any degree of knowledge of Joyce at this time. However, Joyce may well have served as a point of reference for later works, since Mann read Harry Levin's study of Joyce in February 1942, one year before he completed Joseph, the Provider (the final volume of the tetralogy Joseph and his Brothers) in January 1943. And he read Campbell and Robinson's Skeleton Key in August 1944, when his work on Doctor Faustus was well underway. But even if the dates are significant, can we establish from these facts that Mann was ever really influenced by Joyce? And what does 'influence' mean? Robert Weninger sums up the problem of influence when he says that 'no serious writer likes to be considered derivative, which is why the naming game of influence is so precarious and damaging – at least until we reach post-modernity when old-style influence becomes elevated, at times maybe too readily, to conscious and cunning citationism.' That is to say, any attempt to show that Mann was influenced by Joyce is fraught with dangers, because it seems to imply derivation and hence a lesser status. But what if Mann was not 'influenced' by Joyce but rather by scholars writing about Joyce? Does that make the discussion of influence more permissible, and less damaging? Or have we in our 'postmodern' era moved beyond this old-style evaluative stance, as Weninger suggests? Either way, to avoid some of these pitfalls, in this study of the Joyce-Mann relationship I have opted to concentrate on the remarkable structural affinities between their works rather than trying to establish lines of direct influence. In other words, instead of trying to establish the degree of causal linkage between the two writers – which we know existed and is not in dispute – I hope to show how much their literary methods have in common.

The first and most obvious point here is that both Joyce and Mann are leaders in the modernist resurgence of myth. Both writers turn to the founding myths of Western civilization in order to structure the experience of modern life. This has been a central theme of Joyce criticism ever since T. S. Eliot's seminal review of Ulysses in 1923, where he famously states: 'It [myth] is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.' In 1945, it is the turn of Hermann Broch to assert the central significance of myth, this time for both Joyce and Mann. According to Broch, Joyce's Ulysses uses myth as a factor in structuring contemporary experience, while Mann's Joseph and his Brothers...



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