20th January, 2022
I’m from England, which means I know two things about the law:
- that any rule can always be bypassed by those in control &
- you cannot libel the dead.
If one cannot libel the dead, then, it falls to me to ask: what is the purpose of Michael Maar’s blushing refusal to say what he means in this (overall) incredibly readable literary & biographical analysis of the work and life of German Nobel laureate, Thomas “Death in Venice” Mann.
A few years ago, I read a similar work of non-fiction by a German Geoff Dyer type who wrote an entire work about his theory that all of the Nazi leaders were absolutely off their tits on amphetamines and/or cocaine 24/7. That writer (the book was undergraduately titled “Blitzed”) expressed his theory and then offered three hundred pages exploring how his idea might have gone down. Using occasional scraps of tentative evidence and extrapolating like an orator on coke, he made a whole book out of this idea, before quietly whispering at the end that there’s no actual concrete evidence for any of this, but, urr, y’know, maybe it happened, yeh?
The book did pretty well, with its combination of sharp graphic design on the cover and its content guaranteed to appeal to almost everyone (who is excluded from the Venn diagram of “drugs” and “Nazis”???), but understandably got a lot of censure. This didn’t only come for the book’s lack of any real justification for its theory, but also from the fact that lots of nerds felt that the writer was excusing the crimes against humanity perpetrated by those individuals by asserting that they did them all on drugs.
As anyone who has lived even a little can tell you, intoxicants do not change your motivations, they merely change your inhibitions. Saying that the drug-induced loss of inhibitions allowed Hitler to commit genocide isn’t an anti-drugs stance: I’m pretty sure most people are opposed to mass murder, and if you’re honking a thicc rail of blow before ordering an execution it isn’t because you don’t want to order the execution, is it? (It’s because you want to do so but feel inhibited, I imagine, “dutch courage” etc.)
Anyway. Maar’s book about Mann (Bluebeard’s Chamber: Guilt and Confession in Thomas Mann (this version with a new afterword published by Verso in 2019, the book was first published in its original German in 2000 (translation by David Fernbach (main text) & Ross Benjamin (additional afterword)))) reminded me of Blitzed because Maar, too, is teasing a possible explanation that has no, real, evidence.
What Maar implies – without ever stating directly (as if Mann could sue for defamation or whatever) – is that in 1897 (or ’96, I forget, I read it several days ago now), Thomas Mann went on a gap year type trip and fucked a youngish lad then stabbed him to death with a knife, possibly as part of a Satanic ritual, down in Napoli where love is King.
The book opens with a look at a moment that definitely did happen, Mann – having decided to leave Germany as the Nazis took power – trying desperately to get hold of a case of his notebooks he left behind, which include diaries whose content he is terrified should reach any official’s eyes. The papers arrive to him safely, and he burns them.
The standard explanation for this, Maar writes, is that Mann’s diaries included blunt discussions of his homosexuality and he was terrified this would be exposed, but… this is coming from a writer who had already, by that point, a) stated that all of his fictions were autobiographical and b) has written and published multiple texts about homosexual desire – including “Death in Venice”, which is a sympathetic portrait of a middle aged man doomed to death by cholera due to his overwhelming desire for a child.
If people wanted to destroy Mann because of writing about being attracted to men and male children, then there’s enough material in his published work to make said judgement.
What’s worse than sex?, Maar queries, and the answer he alludes to (but refrains from stating directly), is murder.
Bluebeard’s Chamber, though, isn’t a salacious or scandalous book that is trying to shock its readers, it’s a meditative and very text-focused look at the ways in which guilt and Confession appear and recur in Mann’s writing. It’s a very readable and engaging text, and though my comments here make clear that I’m not perhaps as sophisticated as Maar’s presumed reader (or Maar’s translator’s presumed reader, perhaps), nonetheless it is a really enjoyable work of literary criticism that is accessible even to mentally ill losers like me who mainly read just to forget that there’s nothing else in their sad little lives, teehee.
It also reminded me of how much of Mann’s oeuvre I’ve not yet read – expect a post on [my experience of reading] Buddenbrooks later this year!