Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

During Thomas Mann’s later literary career, much of his work was drawn from themes and settings that ranged across more distant historical periods and rather far-flung lands; in this case, he borrowed from various cultural traditions while rendering his own interpretations of the material he selected. The original source for The Transposed Heads is a Sanskrit legend translated by the Indologist Heinrich Robert Zimmer, to whom Mann dedicated the American edition of this work. Although he took some care to study those aspects of classical Indian culture that were important for his work, Mann acknowledged that Western thinkers had also provided inspiration for this effort. Among the more significant influences Mann mentioned are Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had made use of a somewhat similar theme, and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work inspired some of the brooding, pessimistic elements of this novel. Mann also found literary uses for the psychoanalytic doctrine of Sigmund Freud and the work of Carl Gustav Jung, whose theories of a collective unconscious stemmed in part from the study of Indian and other Asian patterns of thought.

Among the full-length works composed entirely during Mann’s later life, The Transposed Heads could be considered rather distant from his other efforts in time, space, and cultural outlook. Mann referred to it later as a metaphysical jest which was composed while he was also at work on other novels. Although during this period of his career Mann was also reworking traditional German themes—as in Lotte in Weimar ( 1939; The Beloved Returns, 1940) and Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus, 1948)—the closest counterpart in spirit and setting to Mann’s Indian novel is the tetralogy Joseph und seine Bruder (1933-1943; Joseph and His Brothers, 1934-1944, 1948), which pursues biblical themes in pharaonic Egypt as part of Mann’s quest for the elucidation of basic moral values in human relationships. Yet The Transposed Heads stands apart from Mann’s other works by virtue of its odd choice of subject matter; while it has not been considered a major effort (indeed Mann himself did not regard it as such), The Transposed Heads does indicate the great range of his interests and the extent of his ability to utilize diverse materials for his own literary purposes.