- Thomas Mann. Neue kulturwissenschaftliche Lektüren ed. by Stefan Börnchen, Georg Mein, Gary Schmidt
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Thomas Mann did not waiver. Returning to Germany from his vacation abroad was no longer an option. Instead, Mann went into exile, citing the responsibility for language, for conscience, and for humanity as the foremost reason why German writers should stand up to the evil committed in their country against justice and truth, against men and man. But maintaining this integrity came at the cost of a mixed literary reception back home. Truth be told, Mann fared much better in exile than other German expatriates. But he too came to bear the brunt of criticism directed at “outer emigrants,” as seen in the rancor that the West-German literary-critical establishment harbored against him well into the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Additionally incriminating in Mann’s case was his antidemocratic stance prior to the Weimar Republic, as well as some politically ambiguous pronouncements that he voiced in private even after the Nazi takeover.
According to the three editors of the volume under review, there was yet another element that fueled the animosity of German literary scholars, namely their perception that Thomas Mann was premodern, not avant-garde, even while the international community hailed him as comparable with Kafka, Joyce, Proust, or Eliot. In order to debunk the myth of Thomas Mann’s lack of modernity and bridge the gap between the critical reception of his works in Germany and in the United States, Stefan Börnchen, Georg Mein, and Gary Schmidt organized four panel discussions with scholars from both sides of the Atlantic at the 2010 annual conference of the German Studies Association. Thomas Mann: Neue kulturwissenschaftliche Lektüren grew directly out of this conference, bringing together twenty-four essays on the topic of Mann’s contemporary relevance for German Studies.
Contributors to the collection illustrate the wealth and sophistication of hermeneutic possibilities still untapped in Mann’s oeuvre. They do so by reading his works through the theoretical lens of cultural studies, from which a good deal of Thomas Mann scholarship has shied away, effectively reinforcing the backward-lookingness that it decries in the 1929 Nobel Prize laureate. A quick look at the volume’s table of contents reveals a commitment throughout to alternative modes of inquiry, which could not be more timely given the widespread call nowadays for interdisciplinarity in the humanities. The essays are grouped into six parts centering on humans and animals, queer perspectives, media, institutions, psychoanalysis, and traditions. Drawing on an eclectic blend of theoretical insights from social sciences and natural sciences, from narrative theory, psychoanalysis, philosophy, music theory, queer studies, and the history of sexuality, as well as from visual, film, and media studies, the collection ascribes to Mann, in the editors’ words, “ein Maximum an thematischer Komplexität [End Page 208] und theoretischem Raffinement” (xi). Cumulatively, the collection boasts a robust critical apparatus that forges new connections not just between fictional prose and various nonliterary disciplines, but also among several of Mann’s writings, as well as between Mann and fellow European writers Boccaccio, Cervantes, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Flaubert, Kafka, Novalis, Rilke, and Storm, to name just a few.
Some of the essays are more original than others from a thematic point of view. Sickness, death, psychoanalysis, and music have been discussed at length in recent Thomas Mann scholarship. Homosexuality has also become a critics’ favorite, especially after the delayed publication of Mann’s diaries, the last of which came out in 1995. The focus on animals, on the other hand, is relatively new. But even within the thematic fields in which inroads have already been made, this collection generates innovative findings. This is due to the combinations of theoretical perspectives that the authors bring to bear on their analyses. The multiplicity of critical tools they employ, sometimes in relation to one and the same text, allows a dialogue to ensue from which readers can gain a...