E. M. Wilkinson (essay date 1944)
SOURCE: "Tonio Krdger: An Interpretation," in Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Hatfield, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964, pp. 22-34.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1944, Wilkinson analyses theme and technique in Tonio Kröger.]
Tonio Kruger occupies a central position in Thomas Mann's spiritual and artistic development. But a work of art must contain its own justification, and to appreciate the story there is no need to know anything of the author's physical or literary antecedents, nor to have read anything else he has written. Taken in and for itself, Tonio Kruger is many things—above all a tender study of youth, of its yearnings and sorrows and its soaring aspirations, of the incredible bitterness of its disillusion. Herein lies, perhaps, its widest appeal. But it is also the story of the growth of a man and artist into self-knowledge, while yet another major theme is an account of the process of artistic creation. Much of this process, its later stage of shaping and craftsmanship, lies outside our actual experience. Even these the poet may enable us to experience imaginatively, so that under his spell we embrace even the alien and unknown. But in one vital aspect of artistic creation, its early phase of "seeing" as distinct from "shaping," we share directly.
This, the aesthetic experience, is a special kind of awareness of the universe. It comes in those moments when we experience things and people, not in their bearing on our own needs and affairs, but for their own sake. They are then no longer simply particular people, things, or events.
We see through their accidental bounds and discover immense vistas beyond. Such moments of profound recognition are often the moments of "idle tears" which well up "from the depths of some divine despair"; idle in the absence of personal-practical cause or end, tears not for sorrows but for Sorrow. "What business of yours is the king who weeps because he is lonely?" Tonio asks with tender irony. And Hans could but have answered "What indeed?" Yet this power to weep with the king implies knowledge of a kind that Hans will never have, "star pupil" though he be. For it is not the result of gifts or ability, but of an inner relation to events. Tonio converts [what T. S. Eliot, in The Family Reunion, called] the "continual impact of external event" into real experience, endows fortuitous happenings with pregnant meaning and reads the pattern out of life. For him the walnut tree and the fountain, his fiddle and the sea, are more than themselves. Into them he sees "contracted" the "immensities" of beauty and art. Above all he possesses a Hamlet-like clairvoyance about his own reactions to people. He despises his teachers for their rejection of his verse-making. Yet he cannot help seeing their point of view too, so that, "on the other hand," he himself feels this verse-making to be extravagant, and "to a certain extent" agrees with them. These qualifying phrases haunt him painfully early. He is poignantly aware of this complexity in his relations to his parents. The contrast between them is more than just a contrast between two individuals. It is evocative of deeper issues, a symbol of the dualism in his own nature. His relation to Hans is equally complex. Tonio knows well enough that it is a relation which can never bring fulfilment, a love in which all the longing and burning, all attempts at closeness and all torture at their frustration, will be on one side. But he knows far more than this. And it is just in this more that the quality of awareness emerges most clearly. For even at fourteen he senses the universality held within this personal experience. Anyone so aware of life as he, cannot help being open and vulnerable to literature too, where the art of the poet underlines the universal within the particular. But this again cuts him off from Hans, for whom bangs and explosions are associated with fireworks, but scarcely with thrills over Don Carlos!
In this story Thomas Mann dwells mainly on the pain which awareness brings, on the separating effect of this kind of knowledge. Its compensations are ignored. Yet they are very real, as Tonio must ultimately have known. The joy it brings outweighs the pain. And even though awareness may make the pangs of suffering sharper, it yet removes from it the destructive quality of blind sorrow. To be so involved that we can see nothing beyond ourselves, to be so completely sufferer that light is shut out, and we grope along in the darkness of almost animal pain, is a deadening experience. "Dumpfheit," mere hollow existence, Goethe called such blind living, and preferred "a life eternally resonant," whether it brought him joy or sorrow.
This awareness, the power of being absorbed in something beyond oneself, of responding to the essential quality of a thing or event, the artist shares with others. But in him the mood is more intense and more permanent. The differentiation within the self is such that he more continuously per-ceives meanings which are hidden when we are absorbed in our own affairs. Of him it is especially true that "there is one man in us who acts and one who watches." Thomas Mann holds fast for us the very moment when this watching trembles on the brink of becoming literature, the transition from awareness to the communication of it through the medium of words. We can distinguish four phases in Tonio's love for Hans; not in time, for they may have happened in one single illumination, but in quality and depth of experience. First he loved Hans and suffered much on his account. That is a purely personal experience expressed in particular terms. Then he was so organized that he received such experiences consciously and recognized the hard fact that he who loves more must suffer more. That is a general human experience expressed in universal terms. But now—and this is the transition from "watching" to "shaping"—"he wrote them down inwardly," that is, the experience became formed, a kind of blueprint of a poem. Finally we get the hallmark of the artist, the pleasure in the experience, with all its bitter knowledge, for its own sake, without any thought of its practical value for his living: "to a certain extent he took pleasure in these experiences, without indeed adjusting his personal life to them nor gaining practical advantage from them."
Much of Tonio's delight in his beloved "fountain, walnut tree, his violin and, far away, the sea, the Baltic," is due to the music of their names, "names which can be included in verses, with good effect." It is the delight the poet takes in calling "the bright, unshadowed things he sees by name." When Lisaveta speaks of the "redeeming power of the word," she surely means that through his medium the artist's insight becomes manifestly fruitful. But again Tonio chooses to ignore the rewards and to dwell rather on the toll which the artist must pay for having surrendered to the power of his medium, a toll paid in sterility and isolation. Even as early as his love for Inge, Tonio realized that he must be in some sense remote from an experience in order to be able to "form" it into literature, remote, not in space or time, but in attitude. Later his joy in the world and the need for "distance" took such possession of him that he became merely an onlooker of himself and others. The roots of such an artist's loneliness lie deeper than is normally supposed. The restlessness which chafes at domesticity, the need to conserve his energy, these are only the more superficial aspects of the problem. His inner loneliness springs rather from his deep sense of failure as a human being. At some point in an experience words become more exciting to him than the experience itself. Even in an intimate relationship he fears he may be sidetracked by his artist's eye, his urge to form may suddenly "see" it, crying out to be shaped by his hand into a work of art. Tonio gives utterance to this sense of failure: "To see clearly, even through a cloud of tears and emotion, to recognize, notice, observe … even in moments when hands clasp each other, lips meet, when man's eyes are blinded by feeling."
Tonio has nothing but scorn for the dilettanti, those sparetime artists, who make the mistake of thinking they can pluck "one leaf, one single little leaf" from the laurel tree of art without paying for it with life itself. "The sterile branch" from Goethe's Tasso might serve as a motto to this whole conversation with Lisaveta. So humanly impotent does the artist seem to Tonio that he even questions his virility, and again a remark of Goethe's: "Every poem is, as it were, a kiss, which one bestows on the world; but children aren't born from mere kissing," might well complete the sentence he leaves unfinished: "We sing so beautifully that it's really moving. However.…" It is the serene finality of art, its contrast with the deadly earnestness of all actuality, which tortures Tonio, as it tortured Nietzsche when he spoke of the flame of genius, "from whose bright circle everything flees, because, lit by the flame, it seems so like a Dance of Death, so foolish, thin as a lath and vain."
Just because Tonio feels equally strongly the pull toward life, he carries within him the possibility of harmony. But Hans is represented as completely lacking in imagination, and we cannot help wondering whether this must always and inevitably be so. Will Tonio's language never be, in part at least, his language? Will he forever be saying resignedly to the Hansens of this world: "Do not trouble to read Don Carlos"? We know that it need not be so, that, though it seems likely that this Hans will remain all his life what he is, there is also Hans Castorp, who begins as one of the "innocent, unseeing ones," but ends by discovering that the germs of imagination, which are in all of us, must not be surrendered, must be tended and harnessed in the service of life. When Tonio stands lost in window-longing, unable to join in the dance, he needs some friendly hand to help him out of his lonely introspection. But even more do Hans and Inge need a push in the opposite direction, need jolting out of the confident assumption that they are the hub of the universe. For only a balance between these two ways of experiencing can bring maturity: doing and seeing, being one of the crowd and being an onlooker. The important thing is that life should not only be lived in and for itself, but that it should also be known.
Tonio does go a considerable way toward maturity. By bringing his problem into the light, he rids himself of much of the bitterness which had been accumulating while he pursued a way of life so alien to one side of his nature. This clearing away of the old is essential if new values are to be born: "Die and be born again!" The irony of his final remark: "That settles me!" symbolizes the destruction of a former self. Soon after this self-confession, he feels the need to go back to his beginnings. As in a dream, he revisits his childhood, passes in review figures which have become symbols, and re-estimates their value for him. Despite his apparent emancipation, the influence of his father had been at work underneath, as his dreams betray clearly enough, secretly sapping his energy and undermining his confidence in himself and his calling. When now, in his dream return, he sees the old house, symbol of the burgher's way of life, filled with books, children begotten of the spirit, what a revelation it must seem of the way he ought to go! What an indication that the "toughly persistent diligence" of the burgher can play its part just as effectively in his own realm of the spirit. The tenderness with which the whole incident is suffused is a sign that the bitterness has been eased and the tensions relaxed.
An artist cannot fence off his living from his creating. They must run fluid one into the other. But he has also to learn not to let his entity as an artist be disturbed by the life he lets in. And he can only achieve this security if he accepts his art, if he believes in his mission of making life expressive for the inarticulate. Then he need not fear lest his art be shaken by rich, vital experience, nor lest his human relationships suffer because of the artist in him. Tonio comes to maturity when he accepts himself as an artist, an artist "from the very beginning, born and fated to be one," and repudiates that aestheticism which, through fear and insecurity, takes flight from the spring into the rarefied atmosphere of the coffeehouse! It remains eternally true that "What is to live in song immortal, Must be destroyed in mortal life"; but equally true that "one must first be something, if one is to create something." "To have died" is only one stage in the process of artistic creation; and for the artist to cut himself off from life altogether means going out into the waste land of pure form and art for art's sake.
As a man, too, he matures. The journey to self-knowledge has brought him the courage to face the isolation of personality, and he is now content to leave those he loves in their "otherness" without wishing to possess them. Out of the growing acceptance of himself, the longing for what he is not is eased, and he can watch with tender understanding their small intensities which are none of his intensity, and love them with the love which is extolled in the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians.
The art of story-telling, that is quite simply the art of compelling people to listen, even if one disregards the content.
No analysis of the artistry by which Thomas Mann compels us to listen to his story can ever take the place of direct appreciation. Criticism is never a substitute for the aesthetic experience. After—and only after—we have been exposed to the direct impact of a work, analysis can perhaps help us to further deepened and enriched experience of it. But there remains always the task of synthesizing what has been analyzed, and this cannot be done by a simple process of adding parts. The whole is always greater than the sum of the parts, and different. Synthesis can only be achieved by surrendering again to the power of the story itself.
The architectonic outlines of this novella grow naturally out of the requirements of the story. Its mixture of epic and dramatic, the absence of connecting links, justify Thomas Mann's own description of it as a prose ballad. Two brief episodes give the essence of the youthful Tonio. There follows a short narrative passage leading to the central reflective part, where all that was implicit is made explicit. It is a commentary on those dramatic scenes which were directly presented to our imagination, but there is nothing artificial about it. It is natural that Tonio, caught at a turning point in his life, should render account to himself of all he has been and is becoming. This is the critical turning point of the novella, and it occurs simultaneously on three planes. In the outer world of space and time the turning point is marked by his decision to leave Munich. In the inner world of the spirit it is a moment of rebirth, marked by his wholehearted affirmation of life. And...
(The entire section is 6303 words.)