The Transposed Heads

by Thomas Mann

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Themes and Meanings

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The moral and philosophical implications of this work are numerous enough that it is best to consider, in turn, those that are overtly argued and others that are suggested more subtly. Whether a person’s intellectual faculties take precedence over the physical being is a question that is clearly posed by the divergent qualities of the two leading men; this issue is raised more acutely when the head of one must inhabit the body of another. Similarly, problems of personal identity are posed by the transpositions depicted here; this matter must be resolved when Shridaman begins to assert his will over Nanda’s body while the head of his friend must come to terms with a different body. Whether the body has a will and characteristics of its own is a question raised in a peculiarly sensitive manner when Sita feels drawn to the transposed versions of men she knew intimately. Human relationships and, more specifically, the competing foci of Sita’s affections are recast in an oddly bifurcated form when she cannot easily choose between the cerebral and the physical manifestations of a given man once they are shared with another. Furthermore, the aesthetic issue which Shridaman discusses rather early in the novel—whether human forms are to be admired in their own right or as they are judged by the beholder—points to other problems in the mind’s apprehension of those attributes that are deemed beautiful or elegantly formed. These sundry problems of idealism and dualism are enveloped in other concerns which, when dealing with problems of the corporeal being, suggest other themes.

The extinction of one’s existence as a resolution of the dilemmas posed here is an expedient first suggested by Shridaman’s religious learning. His deliberations on this concern, as guided by Kali, take a deeply morbid turn; it is significant, however, that Nanda, the man of direct physical action, also comes to a similar conclusion. Moreover, the same goddess expressly advises Sita not to kill herself when she comes upon the bodies and heads. It is only later, when another fatal confrontation has taken place, that Sita feels obliged finally to follow the others in death. The seemingly fatalistic outlook shared by the major characters is handled with some reticence; the gruesome sequence of two decapitations is described gently, without dwelling upon the sanguinary details. At other junctures, particularly during the final duel between Shridaman and Nanda, death is invoked as a philosophical principle which must be weighed against other efforts in order to achieve life’s mental or physical ends. There is a grim finality to the calculations involved here; although there is some suggestion of miraculous agencies at work in the reconstruction of the decapitated corpses, the religious faith invoked does not allude to an afterlife or the possibility of subsequent reincarnations. On the contrary, it would seem that death is conceived as the means by which the claims of the mind and the body are rejected equally. Whether this is accurate from the standpoint of the Indian legend is a question that is left open.

Erotic inclinations are suggested, sometimes in ways that are more explicit than others. Promptings of this sort are not embraced within the dichotomy that Shridaman originally proposes; he alludes to such urges obliquely when the matter first arises, during the bathing scene where Sita first comes before them. Even for Shridaman, aesthetic appreciation cannot readily be distinguished from the inchoate erotic drives that begin to affect him. Sita has a firmer intuition of the extent to which sexual yearnings affect them in murky and sometimes unexpected ways. There are some points at which deeper...

(This entire section contains 722 words.)

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patterns of antithetical symbolism, male and female principles, for example, are at work and are revealed to her by the goddess. It is also significant that for each character erotic impulses are important in establishing a sense of personal identity. In this respect, Sita has some difficulty determining which man she prefers after the transposition.

Out of this conflicting configuration of mental and bodily principles in which neither rational imperatives nor physical urges can be brought into strict harmony, it would seem that ultimately death gains dominion over all. Yet there are some expectations that elsewhere life will continue. In this sense, the identification of Sita with a universal mother figure is important.