While concerned primarily with the problem of Germany, however socially, politically, artistically, or morally perceived, Thomas Mann’s focus always benefited from an awareness of spatial and temporal considerations, from the geographical and the historical. Holland and London, Valparaiso and Florence, Russia and Venice, Palestrina and Switzerland, Italy and the Near East, Mesopotamia and Egypt, Torre di Venere and Davos, India and Lisbon—all these settings round out a worldview that is in no way restricted to the Rhineland or Thuringia or Munich or Lübeck, Hamburg, Weimar, or Bremen. Similarly, the historical dimension shifts broadly, from the Napoleonic wars in Buddenbrooks and the Italian Renaissance in Fiorenza or the Lutheran Reformation in Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen to medieval society in The Holy Sinner, the Greek civilization in passages from Death in Venice, the Judeo-Egyptian world in Joseph and His Brothers, even the prehistorical world, in passages from Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. All was designed to arrive at a better understanding not only of Germany but also of the human condition, of what it means to be human.
The sheer breadth of his perspective facilitated, perhaps even inspired, one of Mann’s major analytical devices: contrast and antithesis. The Dionysian of Italy and the arts, of profane love and the irrational, is juxtaposed to the Apollonian of Germany and the mercantile, of sacred love and the rational. Like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and many other “Teutons” before him, Mann felt acutely the lure of southern Europe, the so-called Drang nach Süden, whereby Italy (and Greece, sometimes translated into what is Latin, French, or even Russian) beckons like a Siren of art, music, and poetry the efficient and practical will of the northerner. The bohemian attracts the bourgeois. With the attraction, interwoven with the whole question of genius or the superior creative spirit, come the notions of disease, sickness, and death as they counterbalance soundness, health, and life.
If the names and origins of the characters mislead at times in this regard, the antithetical premise remains the same. Tonio Kröger (Italian-German)—like the German engineer Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, who falls in love with the French-named Russian Clavdia Chauchat—is torn between the two poles, very much like the author himself. The Germanic Hans Hansen and Ingeborg, in Tonio Kröger, are juxtaposed to the Slavic and more romantic Lisabeta Ivanovna; in The Magic Mountain, the rational Italian humanist scholar Settembrini opposes the mystical, Jesuit-trained Jew Naphta; and in Doctor Faustus, the staid, conservative bourgeois Professor Serenus Zeitblom contrasts only too obviously with the genial hedonist composer Adrian Leverkühn. The same kind of dialectic obtains outside Mann’s novels and novellas, for example, in “Gesang vom Kindchen,” with the Nordic father and the southern/eastern mother; in Fiorenza, with the hedonistic Lorenzo and the ascetic Savonarola; indeed, even in “A Man and His Dog,” with the mongrel Bauschan and the purebred Percy. This contrasting technique usually makes for character delineations that project Mann’s own views through the protagonists or that portray eccentricities through the secondary characters.
Most often people are dealing with artist figures, creators concerned with beauty, and the sound of music is generally audible. According to the nineteenth century philosopher...