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  • Making a Spectacle of Ourselves:The Unpolitical Ending of Thomas Mann's Mario und der Zauberer
  • Geoffrey Baker

In a 1932 letter to Czech literary critic and translator Bedrich Fucík, Thomas Mann attempted to counter the notion that his recently published novella, Mario und der Zauberer (1930), was a primarily political work:

Was "Mario und der Zauberer" betrifft, so sehe ich es nicht gern, wenn man diese Erzählung als eine politische Satire betrachtet. Man weist ihr damit eine Sphäre an, in der sie allenfalls mit einem kleinen Teil ihres Wesens beheimatet ist. Ich will nicht leugnen, daß kleine politische Glanzlichter und Anspielungen aktueller Art darin angebracht sind, aber das Politische ist ein weiter Begriff, der ohne scharfe Grenze ins Problem und Gebiet des Ethischen übergeht, und ich möchte die Bedeutung der kleinen Geschichte, vom Künstlerischen abgesehen, doch lieber im Ethischen als im Politischen sehen.

(Briefe 315)

In these few sentences, Mann makes a case for a certain understanding of political literature. While he acknowledges the presence of references to or reflections of contemporary politics, at a deeper level Mann sees the boundaries of the political as somewhat blurred. First attempting to extricate the novella from the realm of the political, Mann places it into another realm – that of the ethical – whose very separation from the political is questionable, "ohne scharfe Grenze." From this mild conflation of politics and ethics, he finally divorces the two again, at least in his assessment of Mario und der Zauberer. When we confound this early declaration of the novella's generally nonpolitical posture with statements made by Mann in the years that followed, things become ever murkier, because the author became increasingly willing to see politics at work in the story. Ilsedore Jonas has shown that Mann consistently resisted, in the early 1930s, political readings of the novella (62). Yet while in the 1930s he may have been charmed by what he perceived as the general timelessness of the ethical over the mortality of political history, he later seems to have seen fit, after the horrific extremes of mid-century German politics, to grant an importance to the realm of the political in his writing that he had hitherto reserved for ethics.

Mann's early objections to the political readings of his novella are interesting, for if the work has consistently been read politically, Mann and his novella are [End Page 353] most to blame. Critics have repeatedly offered convincing readings of the text as a political allegory. Focussed on whether and how the text can be read as "political," though, fewer scholars have considered what the broader consequences of such a reading might be, and so Mann's novella has not been as carefully read for its (meta)commentary on political aesthetics. The present article asks not whether and how the work is political, but rather what this particular text can reveal to us of Mann's shifting views on the relationship between art and politics. This concerns our habits and history of reading the text as much as it concerns the text itself, which encourages political readings despite Mann's initial antipathy for them. In many ways, though, the text also self-consciously performs its own rudimentary self-examination and addresses the question of what can be accomplished by marrying the aesthetic and the political, the question that of course also pervades Mann's earlier Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (1918). The inextricable ends – both the goal and the narrative terminus – of Mann's novella render problematic some basic assumptions of what a literary work does when one considers it in political terms. Mario und der Zauberer, after insisting that its readers read it politically, ultimately dissolves the spectacle of art into the catastrophe of the real, thus absolving those involved in the story of any responsibility for the novella's horrifying yet liberating (befreiend) outcome. In so doing, Mann's text positions itself against any possible literary engagement in politics. Rather than serve as an example of its author's transformation into a politically engaged writer, the work continues to embody the aestheticism Mann championed earlier in his career.

How is it that a simple holiday story, in which...


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