The Search for a Personal Identity

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During the tumultuous years following World War I, most of the nations of Europe struggled to rebuild the homes, businesses, and towns destroyed by the fighting. Individuals also struggled to rebuild their personal lives and identities. In Germany much of this effort found an outlet in newly formed political parties,...

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During the tumultuous years following World War I, most of the nations of Europe struggled to rebuild the homes, businesses, and towns destroyed by the fighting. Individuals also struggled to rebuild their personal lives and identities. In Germany much of this effort found an outlet in newly formed political parties, which offered the defeated people promises of hope and new opportunities. But for many, daily survival was their only concern. The search for personal identity amid the ruins of war is one of the themes of Thomas Mann’s story ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow.’’ In it, the Cornelius family strives to maintain its middle-class status in the midst of a deteriorating social structure, while at the same time dealing with questions of individual identity.

Professor Abel Cornelius struggles the most with his self-image. He has been a respected college history professor. But now his position is less valued because of the instability of a society that has more dire issues to worry about than education. ‘‘The Professor shaved his pointed beard and goes smooth faced. The pointed beard had become impossible—even professors must make some concession to the changing times,’’ Mann wrote in an example that illustrates the necessity for people to keep up with the times. The concessions are deeper than having to shave every morning. His beard was once ‘‘the symbol of his academic individuality,’’ but now it is gone, and his position at the university has been diminished, according to critic Franklin E. Court. His professorship had been awarded because he had ‘‘written a valuable work on’’ the Counter- Reformation. But his stature is dwindling because he has not written equally worthy papers recently. His cigar burns down, just as his status and career symbolically burn down.

In the face of his decreasing status, the professor tries to maintain his academic identity. He continues to retreat to his den to prepare class lectures on old topics. In an act of meditation on his past academic glory, ‘‘He savors his sentences; keeps on polishing them while he puts back the books he has been using.’’ He takes long walks by the river, during which he ruminates on ‘‘scientific preoccupations,’’ especially as they relate to his historical specialty. He ‘‘communes with himself.’’ But just as he ‘‘puts back the books,’’ he is symbolically put back on the shelf while the river moves on.

Despite these ironic withdrawals to the den, which separate him from his family and the difficulties of daily life, he wants to be a good father to his children. He wants to be seen as an important person in the life of the household. He dotes on Ellie, cuddling her in his lap and sitting by her side as she cries herself to sleep. But he has misgivings about the attention he lavishes on her, believing that ‘‘something (is) not perfectly right and good in his love.’’ He draws himself up by thinking that the questions he has just asked himself are merely scientific in nature. These thoughts reinforce his combined needs to be the professor and good father without fault or bad judgment.

On other occasions he is a critic, raising another of Mann’s major themes: the role of art and the artist in society. He makes remarks and judgments about the behaviors of the party guests ‘‘that ring frightfully false’’ and about their occupations as ‘‘artist( s) of the modern school.’’ He is offended by their ‘‘mad modern dances.’’ He condemns Herzl for wearing rouge. But then, in contrast, he flatters him by calling him a ‘‘Court actor’’ as an ‘‘atonement for his previous hard thoughts about the rouge.’’ After hearing Moeller sing several songs, in a moment of over reaction he ‘‘applauds with ostentation. It warms his heart and does him good, this outcropping of artistic, historic, and cultural elements all amongst the shimmying.’’ In this one moment he has let down his critical guard and has combined the arts that he dislikes with disciplines he admires, revealing an ambivalence in his attitude.

Bert is not immune from his barbed judgments. ‘‘And here is my poor Bert, who knows nothing and can do nothing and thinks of nothing except playing the clown, without even talent for that!’’ Even his positive remarks about Bert are tinged with sarcasm and pessimism. Comparing Bert to Moeller, the Professor says that ‘‘his dancing and table-waiting are due to mere boyish folly and the distraught times.’’ He denies his son the right to choose his own career.

In spite of his antipathy to his children’s friends, he still feels attracted to the party and the guests. His carefully rehearsed first entry stands in ironic contrast to his disdain for actors and their role playing. He acts out the role of gracious host, and later recreates and adds to it by giving the party guests a package of cigarettes. After putting the package on the mantel with a flourish and a smile, he looks around the room to see if anyone noticed. He is looking for recognition, just as an actor does at the end of a drama.

As Ellie dances with Max, the professor ‘‘feels an involuntary twinge.’’ At first this is jealousy, but it also becomes a desire to participate in the party activities. The Professor is not averse to fun and games, often playing ‘‘four gentlemen taking a walk’’ with Ellie and the kitchen staff. But as Ellie and Max dance, he becomes more agitated and finally leaves the house for a brief walk in the evening air.

He escapes into illusion at the end of the story, according to Bolkosky. And because of this, the Professor never really finds himself. After Ellie goes to sleep in her crib, he sits and thinks that things in the morning will return to the way they used to be. Hergesell has noted that ‘‘she’s beginning young,’’ echoing an earlier remark by bluefaced Ann: ‘‘It’s pretty young for the female instincts to be showing up.’’ The comment caused the Professor to snap back at Ann, hiding his agony at the realization that despite Ellie’s youth she was growing up. Yet, in his mind, he returns to the past and to his past self, the history professor who reveres history and things dead. He wants Ellie to return to his vision of the past. But this act of selfdeception conceals the reality that Ellie will not forget and things will not return to the way they were.

The Professor is not the only one searching for a personal identity. Both Bert and Ingrid struggle continually to find their identity, much of which is focused on mimicking and mocking others. They assume phony personae on the bus and tell tall tales about nonexistent lives, using exotic accents. They call dignitaries and make up false identities while they harass the unsuspecting listeners.

Bert seems most insecure in his attempts to find himself. He struggles with his school work but ‘‘intends to get done with school somehow.’’ Then he plans to ‘‘fling himself into the arms of life. He will be a dancer or a cabaret actor.’’ His goals for his future are not well planned. As Court notes, ‘‘Bert is forced to mimic others.’’ He adopts the mannerisms and dress of Xaver, wearing his ‘‘hair very long on top, with a cursory parting in the middle,’’ just as Xaver does. When he is seen from behind while leaving the house, ‘‘Dr. Cornelius from his bedroom window cannot, for the life of him, tell whether he is looking at his son or his servant.’’ Bert even tries to emulate Xaver by smoking, but comes up short because he ‘‘has not the means to compete with Xaver, who smokes as many as thirty a day.’’ In his attempts to be like Xaver, Bert is not up to the task.

Ingrid has her own difficulties with self-identity. She will soon take an exam for a certificate that she does not plan to use. In the process, she winds the ‘‘masters, even the headmaster, round her finger.’’ She becomes a kind of vamp who can manipulate others and who has ‘‘a marked and irresistible talent for burlesque.’’ In her manipulation of the masters, she has lost the sense of the difference between her real life and the stage life to which she aspires. By failing to make these distinctions, as well as by her phone and bus behaviors, she is acting even as she lives. Her sense of personal identity has been lost in the false characters she has created for herself.

Even Ellie is not content with her identity. She fusses at her appearance, aggravated by her father’s constant reminders about her ears. Perhaps the most telling incident is her reaction to the dance with Max. Afterwards, she is not content with being the daughter of the Professor; in her youthful naivete, she has defined herself in terms of being the sister to Max.

The guests at the evening party also seem to be on a quest for their own personal identities. Some of them come wearing make-up. These artists ‘‘find their identity in artifice, in a self-created world,’’ according to Court. The guests, however, do not hide behind the conventions of the older generations. They talk to each other ‘‘offensively to an older ear; of social forms, of hospitable warmth, there is no faintest trace. They call each other by their first names.’’ These deviations amuse and irritate the Professor because they violate his sense of order. To the guests, these behaviors establish themselves as equals among their own age groups. The theme of disorder and disruption is also found in the identity searches of the party guests. As Bolkosky says, Mann ‘‘captures not only the personal disorder and sorrow of a family . . . but . . . the confusion of generations.’’

Xaver stands out among the characters in this tale because of his individuality, self-assurance, and personal strengths. He is unmoved by others and makes no attempts to assume any other identity. He leads a ‘‘free and untrammeled existence,’’ satisfied with himself as he is. He ‘‘is not a puppet,’’ according to Court. He has ‘‘quite distinct traits of character of his own,’’ which his employers have conceded. He lives at his own pace, being willing to get out of bed at any time of the night for his own reasons, but ‘‘to get up before eight in the morning, he cannot do it’’ when schedules require it. He has demonstrated in this way that he will work for the Cornelius family, but he will not become one of them. He will ‘‘not be trained to the performance of the daily round.’’ He does not obey the family rules; ‘‘he will not jump over the stick’’ as though he were a trained dog.

Xaver is the object of Bert’s attentions and the Professor’s quiet praise, despite being called ‘‘a thorough-paced good-for-nothing and a windbag’’ because he speaks his mind and is a ‘‘follower of the revolution, Bolshevist sympathizer.’’ The Professor also calls him the ‘‘minute man’’ because he responds to crises quickly and without hesitation. He gets gratification from the egg-buying enterprise as he dons ‘‘civilian garb and attends his young master and mistress.’’ They all ‘‘delight in misleading and mystifying their fellow-men.’’ But he does not make this experience the major focus of his life. It serves him as a diversion, not as way of living.

The search for individual identity is an experience shared by characters in fictional tales and by real people. But the manner and success of this journey depends on the circumstances that accompany the individuals, as well as the depth and strength of character of the individual doing the seeking. In this story the two most insecure people, the Professor and his son, Bert, have the most difficulty in finding themselves. The Professor hides in the well-known past, and Bert hides in an unknown future. But hiding does not complete their searches. At the end of the tale both are still looking for themselves. They still have someone to find.

Source: Carl Mowery, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.

Thomas Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’: The Writer as Social Critic

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2698

‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ is a ‘‘realistic’’ description of a day in the life of an upper middleclass family in the Munich of 1924. It has, however, deeper significance, suggesting an analysis of the time more pointed than any of Mann’s previous aesthetic undertakings. He seems almost off his guard, somehow at ease, with a keen if relaxed eye for historical results. Written in 1925 at and about a time when the turbulent circumstances of people’s lives were indisputably attributable to such a monumental political event as World War I, the narrative makes a political statement and embodies Mann’s evolving feelings about life in the Weimar Republic and the future of Germany.

The war had brought Germans impoverishment, austerity, debt, a collection of revolutions and Putsch, unbelievable inflation, malaise, cynicism, imbalance, loss of values, and a rejection of history. Both the nation and families were wracked by generational conflict and rebellion. Instead of Kultur, ‘‘dedication to a basic order of things and its lasting values,’’ there was disorder, which Mann addressed here, from its midst, in every conceivable aspect. In ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ he satirized what one critic has dubbed his ‘‘seismographic neutrality’’ through a poignant self-accusation, and he expressed moral, historical, social, and political opinions— unequivocally.

Abel Cornelius, the head of the family in ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow,’’ is a university professor. He and his wife are referred to by their children as the ‘‘Old Folk’’; the grandparents, ‘‘The Ancients,’’ are never seen. The two older children, teenagers Bert and Ingrid, are the ‘‘Big Folk’’; and the younger ones, Ellie and Snapper, ages five and six, the ‘‘Little Folk.’’ The household includes servants, the most important of whom is Xaver Kleinsgutl, a proletarian contemporary of the Big Folk. The day is a special one because of an informal party the Big Folk are giving for their friends. During the party Ellie becomes enchanted by a young man, Max Hergesell, who playfully dances with her. She is heartbroken when she must leave the party with her brother and go to bed; she weeps bitterly as she watches Max dance with a plump, Germanic girl, and cries out that she wishes he were her brother. Professor Cornelius, profoundly, ineffably attached to his daughter, is helpless and anguished. Xaver fetches Max who appears like a fairy-tale prince, dashingly competent, to soothe Ellie, who, with her father, is astonished at his heroic appearance and magnanimity. She drifts off to sleep peacefully, Cornelius thanks Hergesell gratefully yet with some inexplicable resentment, and the story concludes with the professor pondering the prospect of a normal tomorrow filled with games.

The apparent straightforwardness of the novella is, of course, deceptive. Mann captures not only the personal disorder and sorrow of a family and a child, but the national disorder and sorrow, the confusion of generations. There are more or less standard types: Xaver, the ‘‘child of his time,’’ Max, the ‘‘new man,’’ Cornelius, the representative of older traditions and institutions, Ellie and Snapper, the new life born at around the same time as the Weimar Republic and, like it, troubled, disturbing, and problematic. But Mann’s genius for humanizing stereotypes is perhaps more evident here than in the major works. Through deft and subtle descriptions he begins to express a sociopolitical stand regarding Germany’s future—this before the anti- Fascist statement in ‘‘Mario,’’ before the clear and present danger of Nazism, before his open, if ambiguous, defenses of the Republic. It is a position in many ways consistent with his earlier attitudes, but more concrete, overtly critical of both the new and the old choices. It is a political statement because any consideration of German society after World War I was forced to deal with politics; the economy, the social structure, the educational institutions, as well as ideologies were all directly traceable to political experience. In a sense, then, ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ marks a significant turning point in Mann’s career because it bridges his earlier and later work. More than that, it discloses continuity along with discontinuity, consistency along with contradiction, commitment and engagement along with apparent aloofness and detachment.

‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ presents a surprisingly detailed account of daily life in the Weimar Republic. The economic plight of Germans during the inflation reveals itself in the first sentence as the Cornelius family dines on croquettes made not of meat but of turnip greens and a trifle made from ‘‘those dessert powders we use nowadays’’: unnatural food suitable for unnatural times. Frau Cornelius is no more than a shadow in the story, but Mann relates simply yet fully that the ‘‘fantastic difficulties of the housekeeping have broken and worn her’’ to whom ‘‘everything seems upside down.’’ She is frantic over the need to buy the rationed, one-thousand mark eggs as soon as possible before the price rises. The task rests with the Big Folk and Xaver—the resourceful ‘‘moujik.’’

For this egg escapade the Big Folk must use assumed names in order to exceed the family egg quota. Xaver dons ‘‘civilian clothing’’ to assist, and dressed in outgrown clothes similar to those of his master’s son, he is virtually indistinguishable from Bert. Indeed, Cornelius has intimations that this fellow of the lower classes is somehow superior to his own son. The younger children add to the confusion by addressing their father by his first name, Abel, and the disturbing, painfully descriptive initial paragraphs become explicitly sarcastic in the mocking conduct of Ingrid as she reminds Abel of the forthcoming party, calling him ‘‘Darling old thing.’’ The unnatural, strained, and comic tone of the scene is heightened by the contrast between the children and Abel who, despite the discontinuity of life, still ‘‘presides in proper middle class style.’’

We are immediately aware of a generational conflict and that children lack respect for parents and ghostly grandparents. They lack more; their goals either are not defined or flaunt traditional aspirations. Eighteen-year-old Ingrid, on the eve of her exams, having ingratiated herself with teachers and headmasters through guile and deviousness, leans toward stage burlesque. Seventeen-year-old Bert plans to finish school ‘‘somehow, anyhow, and fling himself into the arms of life,’’ perhaps as a dancer or a waiter. Seeking diversion in Weimar’s notorious underground, they are shocking and publicly irreverent toward the older generation and its values. Apparently addicted to the telephone, they call anyone—government officials, operatic celebrities, Church authorities, any representative of the old establishment—to play tricks; Mann labels these verbal vandals ‘‘wanton and impish.’’ From the perspective of the father’s generation, their lives are aimless, their goals unanchored and ephemeral.

In the center of the activity, a bit confused and frazzled by the commotion, a bit absent-minded, is Professor Abel Cornelius. His name suits him: ‘‘Cornelius’’ evokes a portrait of a classical and patriotic outlook and ‘‘Abel,’’ the obedient servant of authority, formal, precise and faithful—but doomed. He is the ‘‘geistiger Mensch,’’ akin in some respects to Aschenbach, but more to Mann himself. As historian, he is faithful to the past, obsessed with time, watching clocks and calendars, losing track of the days, trying to hold time back and to become history. He is old Germany: the historian as state bureaucrat, pedantic civil servant, teacher and authority figure who, before World War I, was conformist, unquestioning, and, most importantly, apolitical. Because of his love for the past, for the ‘‘timeless,’’ the ‘‘eternal,’’ and ‘‘infinity,’’ he hates the revolution. But as an apolitical man by scholarly principle and commitment, he does not confront it actively. Abel has made compromises: he has shaved his pointed beard (probably reminiscent of the Kaiser), for example, and silently tolerated the laziness and near-insolence of the servants and children.

When the present confronts him, Cornelius ‘‘withdraws to his study.’’ Mann does not have him ‘‘go,’’ ‘‘retire,’’ or ‘‘move,’’ but ‘‘withdraw’’ (Zuruckziehen), a word that increasingly implies retreat. And there he reads. Is reading perhaps an escape from disorder? A way to combat it? Words seem to control past events in the historian’s ‘‘art,’’ to order them clearly and to define and explain rationally the flow of history. Unchanging words provide unchanging significance and meaning for him, while perfectly ordered syntax provides perfectly ordered history; both disappear in the world of the party. What attracts the historian, Abel thinks, is the certainty and order of the past—certain, even immortal, because it is dead ‘‘and death is the root of all godliness and abiding significance.’’ Such pious Hegelian ruminations sound not profound, but foolish, irrelevant, almost quaint in the historical context of this story. Dutiful Abel withdraws to his inner sanctum and escapes the living present and its hostile insecurities by reading of ‘‘genuine history,’’ the dead past. The washbasin, broken for two years, remains unfixed, the quest for eggs not his worry, the myriad of minor and major crises remote from him. And the language of the young remains unintelligible to him, alienating him from his children, from the party, from real life and action.

Professor Cornelius is simultaneously a realistic figure and a rich literary symbol of a way of life that was fast fading from existence in 1924. He encapsulates more than the ‘‘preoccupation with death of a typical bourgeois of the pre-war period’’ in Lukacs’ limiting description of him. Life in his study is the life of the mind, replete with words separated from action and reality. He reads backwards in time: first of England in the seventeenth century, the origin of the English public debt; then of Spain’s enormous debt at the close of the sixteenth century. Here is food for a lecture comparing the prosperity of England despite its debt with the catastrophic failure of Spain under similar circumstances. A wealth of material rests in the English and French texts from which the professor will form an ethical and psychological analysis. All this provides a means of discussing his specialty, Philip II of Spain and the Counter-Reformation. (Cornelius has already written a monograph on the subject.) In his self-contained refuge, Abel makes no connection whatsoever between these historical crises and that of Germany in 1924, between the end of Spain’s Empire and the collapse of Germany’s in wars against England. His failure to do so is breathtaking in its blindness. This boundary between mind and matter, this divorce from reality testifies to a fatal flaw in those of Abel’s class, profession, and ethos. And Mann does not justify it, sympathize with it, or pity it. We feel the pathos of Abel’s situation, but no sympathy for his separation; no meditative, artistic excuses for disengagement insinuate themselves.

Abel’s scholarly specialty conveys his own essence, symbolizes his most hidden nature. He has written on Philip II, son of Emperor Charles V, defender of the Church against the revolutions of Protestantism. With his ‘‘conservative instinct’’ Abel identifies with Philip to some extent, much as Mann had earlier identified with Frederick the Great, whom he had characterized as waging hopeless wars to test himself. To Abel, Philip is a tragic figure engaged in a ‘‘practically hopeless struggle . . . against the whole trend of history.’’ With idealistic aplomb and abstraction he conceives Philip’s fight to have been against the ‘‘Germanic revolution,’’ never consciously acknowledging his own opposition, as futile as Philip’s, to another Germanic revolution. Even as he ponders the dramatic impact of the well-formed sentences he writes for tomorrow’s lecture on ‘‘black-clad Philip,’’ past and present ‘‘mingle with a confused consciousness.’’ His thoughts circle back to the party—from Philip to the party—and he dozes, escaping.

Abel’s historical interpretation of his hero illuminates his own character. Philip seems to him to cling gallantly, if tragically, to his ideal of Right as it is rigidly defined by the past. He represents order, obedience, traditional standards, duty and authority: all the qualities of life that Abel honors and embraces. Historically, however, Philip II was perhaps the man most directly responsible for the decline of Spain, having assumed the throne at the apogee of its imperial glory and leaving it with only shadows of greatness glimpsed in subsequent artistic and intellectual flowering. One historian describes him as ‘‘narrow, despotic and cruel.’’ And Mann’s description of Frederick’s temperament, ‘‘as vicious as it is melancholy,’’ may be applied to Philip. Determined at all costs to force strict conformity, Philip instituted the worst aspects of the Spanish Inquisition and initiated the war for suppression of the revolt in the Netherlands—a rebellion led by his son, Don Carlos. His portraits suggest his character: austere, black-clad, bookish, deceptively serene, and efficiently bureaucratic. Unlike Schiller in Don Carlos, northern historians have painted him as the secret murderer of his son, dark and foreboding. His enormous kingdom was in turmoil, disunited, almost as polyglot as the eastern Hapsburg Empire, and as divided as Germany—while he, inactive, tried to rule from his desk by written decree. His shadow hung over the generation of fathers in Weimar Germany, manifested in the image of authority created by post-World War I intellectuals and personified in historians and teachers: an unfeeling figure, the betrayer of the lost generation of sons as well as the lost empire. Abel has unwittingly assumed the qualities—all of them—of Philip. . . .

Abel faces this new world of intensified pragmatism and, like his model Philip II, cannot accept it. Whereas the aesthetic man of the Reflections voluntarily disengaged himself and loftily observed politics and history at a distance, isolated because he refused to take sides or abide by totalizing definitions and dogmas, Abel flees to illusion, to the past, as confused by the needs of life (Ellie) as Aschenbach was by the ecstasies he experienced when he too confronted youth and real life. In ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ Mann declares that change is imminent, inescapable—declares, too, that the viability of the apolitical isolation of the phlegmatic thinker is superannuated—lamentably, perhaps, but necessarily. This testimony simultaneously reaffirms the condemnation of Gesellschaft or Zivilisation and rejects the virtue of the apolitical or disengaged man of mind. Erich Heller suggested that Mann attributed the isolation of the artist to the nature of art and that he could not yet see, in 1918, another possible basis for isolation: ‘‘the misdemeanour of society.’’ Mann felt it, and saw it by 1925. Bourgeois society and values had been terrifyingly, depressingly transformed beyond radical and conservative labels to confusing mixtures of both, to apolitical stances by uncultured and unscrupulous new young men.

This new phenomenon, a decline of Kultur worse even than nineteenth century mediocrity, was not the Dionysian witch’s brew that some critics have claimed prefigured Nazism in Mann’s early stories. For all the discussion of the famous tension between Dionysian frenzy and bureaucratic control, it was the latter that would prove the greater threat. Historians have discerned the deadliest aspects of Nazism in its cold, technological, bureaucratic amorality: a ‘‘logical’’ product of a bourgeois spirit devoted to order, administration, and success that facilitated the routine execution of ‘‘civilized’’ terror. This other side of Nazism had its roots in the nineteenth century but found fertile soil in the Weimar Republic of 1925–1930. Who better than the dispassionate, unfeeling, and rational engineer— antithesis of irrationality and passion—to represent the new man? Despite his apolitical stance, Max is political, plastic, and practical. He is not the mystifying, artistic tyrant of ‘‘Mario,’’ but he would certainly fall under the tyrant’s spell—logically. Abel will be displaced by this Cain/Max who has no past to hinder or bind him in any way. Ronald Gray has described Mann’s narrator in ‘‘Mario’’ as ‘‘unattached, calmly setting down the catastrophe.’’ In ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ Mann described an impending social catastrophe that involved him, and judged it. His writing reveals a political and social consciousness that predated the rise of Fascism. Bertolt Brecht would argue years later that for all the unspeakable horror, Hitler was nevertheless a comic fool. It is ironic, then, that Mann described Max Hergesell as ‘‘the fairy clown.’’

Source: Sidney Bolkosky, ‘‘Thomas Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’: The Writer as Social Critic,’’ in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 218–233.

Deception and the ‘Parody of Externals’ in Thomas Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1454

Professor Cornelius’s loss of his young daughter, Ellie, and Ellie’s loss of Max Hergesell, the ‘‘fairy prince’’ who captures her tiny heart at the ‘‘big folks’’’ party in Mann’s ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow,’’ are but the final movements in a narrative that suggests fraud and hopelessness from beginning to end. The opening paragraph, for example, quite appropriately begins with a reference to one of the most deceptive of all foods—croquettes— deceptive because the ingredients are disguised. The Corneliuses, a very ‘‘proper’’ middle class family, living in an illusory house outwardly appearing elegant but actually badly in need of repair, a house in which ‘‘they themselves look odd . . . with their worn and turned clothing and altered way of life,’’ sit to eat a dinner of ‘‘croquettes made of turnip greens’’ followed by a trifle that is ‘‘concocted out of those dessert powders’’ that the reader learns really taste like something else—soap.

Here we have a small example at the outset of how Mann uses a stylistic device called ‘‘parody of externals’’ to create irony, a subject that John G. Root discusses in an enlightening article on Mann’s style, but one which has never been successfully applied to an analysis of ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow.’’ This brief study will attempt to explain how the leitmotiv of deception in this unusual tale is re-inforced through the description of physical externals. We will find that in each character considered, except one, outer traits complement inner peculiarities. The one exception is the servant, Xaver, who has the ironic last name of Kleinsgutl, ironic because he is without doubt the only character in the story who is ‘‘his own man.’’

In contrast to Xaver, the other characters are poseurs, bearing more resemblance to puppets or mannequins than to real beings. The ‘‘big folks’’ (Bert and Ingrid), for instance, seem to lack integrity. They are much like the telephone that plays such a prominent part in their lives: expressionless, capable only of audible contact, an artificial sound device. Bert, the Professor’s seventeen year old son, having succumbed to Ivor Herzl’s influence, ‘‘blackens the lower rim of his eyelids’’ and assumes the unnatural pose of a performer. Like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, who is a creation of the artistic imagination of Lord Henry Wotton, Bert is Herzl’s creation. From a distance, Bert is said to resemble Xaver, but there the resemblance ends; the doubles are inconsonant—Xaver is not a puppet. He toys with the idea of being engaged by a cinema director, but he is, as the Professor envisions, too much of a ‘‘good-for-nothing . . . with quite distinct traits of character of his own’’ ever to take the cinema dream seriously. He must be taken ‘‘as he is.’’ Xaver does what he has the urge to do (he smokes thirty cigarettes a day, for instance); Bert, because he lacks ‘‘the means to compete with Xaver,’’ or, for that matter, with anyone else, is forced to mimic others. Bert’s deficiency manifests itself by the paternal envy his father experiences when comparing Bert’s failures with the accomplishments of a number of male guests at the party. Bert’s fraudulent, showy outward behavior mirrors his inner failure: ‘‘‘poor Bert, who knows nothing and can do nothing . . . except playing the clown’.’’ His external appearance parodies his hollow, selfdeception.

Ingrid, the Professor’s older daughter, is also a markedly deceptive character whose entire life appears to have been comprised of sham and impersonation. She is said to know how to ‘‘wind masters, and even headmasters, round her finger,’’ and she is in school working for a certificate that she never plans to use. The performance that she and Bert put on in the bus, at the expense of the unhappy old gentleman sitting opposite them, and the delight she takes in ridiculing Max Hergesell’s nasal drawl reflect a bizarre and sadistic inner quality. Both she and Bert foreshadow through their outward behavior the pose and affectation which will later distinguish the many painted figures who turn up for the party.

What the Professor observes of Herzl the actor seems to encompass the entire guest list: ‘‘‘Queer,’ thinks the Professor, ‘You would think a man would be one thing or the other—not melancholic and use face paint at the same time. . . . But here we have a perfect illustration of the abnormality of the artist soul-form’.’’ ‘‘The artist soul-form’’—shades of Aschenbach, Cipolla, and Tonio Kröger are conjured up by the professor’s comment; no doubt the painted, artificial host of guests at the party share with them the soul-form of the artist. The artist- figures who attend the party emphasize by contrast the commonplace, rather mediocre nature of the professor’s entire family; the extent of their mediocrity is emphasized finally by the professor himself— who is as self-deceived as his children.

The Professor sees something abnormal in the artist’s soul. Unlike the ‘‘big folks,’’ he does nothing or wears nothing that gives one the impression that he is self-deceived. Ironically, however, the professor appears less and less attractive as the party progresses. The revelers are artist-figures living devoid of class awareness; the same cannot be said for the ‘‘big folks’’ and the Professor. The artists seem to find their identity in artifice, in a selfcreated world. They must, because the generation of the ‘‘old folks’’ has given them nothing with which they can identify. And whatever else these art seekers might be, they are not hypocrites. Like the ‘‘madmen’’ and the ‘‘immortals’’ in Hesse’s Steppenwolf, whom they resemble, their strange outward behavior does not conceal inner deformities. They are surrealistic externalizations of a total acceptance of life’s absurdity, and they do not take themselves seriously. The same, however, cannot be said for the ‘‘big folks’’ or for the Professor himself.

The one external feature associated with the Professor, his glasses, suggests the essential weakness in his character. They are bifocals with lenses ‘‘divided for reading and distance’’ and are symbolic of his divided personality which adjusts his view according to the circumstances. Mann explains that being a history professor, Professor Cornelius’s heart belongs ‘‘to the coherent, disciplined, historic past.’’ We are also told that inwardly the Professor dislikes the pose and artificiality of the artists and resents the party ‘‘with its power to intoxicate and estrange his darling child.’’ Yet all of his inward resentment and opinions are hidden by an exterior far more deceitful than the rouged cheeks of Herzl the actor. The Professor laughs at the sick humor of the ‘‘big folks,’’ not because he really wants to, but because ‘‘in these times when something funny happens people have to laugh.’’ Although he attacks the changing times in his lectures, he, nevertheless, has shaved his beard, the symbol of his once academic individuality, and now smooth-faced— his ‘‘concession to the changing times’’—he outwardly embraces the society and world view he detests. He seems to associate the ‘‘big folks’’’ party with the tone of the new society that he attacks in his lectures, yet his mind wanders during the very process of formulating his argument to a pleasurable anticipation of the coming festivities. And when the time does arrive, we see him polishing his glasses (it is time to readjust his perspective to suit the circumstances) and practicing ‘‘appropriate’’ phrases to impress the guests whom he will flatter with undue approval and unnecessary praise. The Professor is a hypocrite.

The devastating irony that Mann achieves mainly through the parody of externals in this story reaches its culmination in the characterization of the Professor. The leitmotiv of deception, that pervades the story, ends with the lie that appears at the end of the narrative—the lie that the professor forces himself to believe: that tomorrow the glittering Hergesell will be, for Ellie, ‘‘a pale shadow.’’ The story, however, suggests otherwise. His prayers to heaven that Ellie will forget Hergesell and the festive world he symbolizes is the professor’s final act of selfdeception. She will not forget.

The title of the story is appropriate: the world out of joint, the ‘‘disordered’’ world, is viewed in microcosm in the lives of the Cornelius family; the revelers, at least, seem to have come to terms with the ‘‘disorder’’—they ignore it or find happiness in spite of it. Ellie’s ‘‘early sorrow’’ is destined to intensify as long as she believes so firmly in ‘‘swan knights’’ and ‘‘fairy princes’’ like Hergesell. As Hergesell uncannily seems to know, ‘‘‘she’s beginning young’.’’

Source: Franklin E. Court, ‘‘Deception and the ‘Parody of Externals’ in Thomas Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 186–89.

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Critical Overview