Thomas Mann and Niko’s Cassirer

Stanley Corngold tells us a story about Thomas Mann’s dog named Niko. Not allowed to step foot into Mann’s library, Niko finally gains entry. Well, Niko ate a book by Ernst Cassirer. If it was the book on symbolic forms, well, then – as Captain Ryder might say in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – what a good choice! Was it Emerson or Thoreau or someone else who said good books should be digested if they are worthwhile? William James asked: what is it that makes life worthwhile? Niko’s digesting Cassirer was worthwhile.

I have read and re-read Mann’s Dr. Faustus over the last thirty years. Re-reading this magisterial work still leaves me entranced and haunted, although there is much about the book that eludes me. Trained as a classical pianist, I have a special interest in the book, for much of what Mann says resonates not only with the diabolical aspect of that training but also with the demands of becoming an artist, a writer, a poet, a musician, or a philosopher for that matter. I do not drive a wedge between artistry and philosophy.

At the exclusion of all else, to become an artist – whether one is becoming-philosopher, or becoming-musician, writer or poet – a certain kind of life is at hand, a life that is not necessarily appealing to those who eschew discipline and hard work. Hermann Kurzke has it right when he argues that, for Mann, life and art are one and the same. Life as a Work of Art is Kurzke’s biography of Mann – this biography is worth reading and re-reading.

Philosophers might not see the relevance of biography or the literary or the musical, but, perhaps, they might reconsider things. Niko had it right. In the case of Cassirer or Mann, Beethoven or Schubert, no wedge was drawn between life and art, for life was art for philosopher, writer and composer. Not an appealing life for those who do not see the point in diabolical drive and the madness of discipline. In Plato’s Republic, one must take the ‘long way round’ to philosophise, and, for Plato, that meant engaging in dialogue, which later became translated as dialectic. The call and response are inherent to music, literature, poetry and philosophy. Leo Strauss says of Plato that his poetry ministered to philosophy, and Plato’s work was, after all, poetic philosophy. The dialogue of music, the literary, poetry, philosophy is akin to the call and response found in prophetic literatures. For example, in the case of the biblical prophets, there is a formula theologians refer to as the call and response. First, the prophet is called; then, he refuses the call. But, after a time, he submits.

Submission to a musical score, a call, the text, the literary imagination, might not seem like an attractive idea. But it is a necessary one. Avital Ronell points out that being submissive to a text is what it takes to become a philosopher. I take this to mean that the text should be honoured. Honouring the text does not mean getting it right or getting into the mind of the author – Schleiermacher’s subjective-historical and subjective-prophetic – but it does mean looking for patterns that might tell us something about what is important to the writer. The number of times Thomas Mann writes about taking walks in his novels – I cannot begin to count. Walking and listening matter.

Listening to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden is an experience like no other. Being transported by music cannot be captured in words. Although it is the case that Thomas Mann, like no other author, put into words music’s unnamables. Misha Dichter – the beloved pianist – comments that only Thomas Mann could write about a Beethoven piano sonata for pages on end. In fact, many scholars who teach Mann’s Dr. Faustus are musicologists. One does not have to be a musicologist to see what Mann is doing. The impossible. Writing meticulously about music is impossible, for music belies language.

As is well known, Beethoven was tyrannical. Perhaps he was like this before he went deaf, or going deaf could have exacerbated what was already there. The German edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas – G. Henle Verlag’s Urtext or Klaviersonaten Band I & II – are gorgeous works of art just to look at, even if you can’t read music. There is a kind of magic in looking at scores for they bespeak another kind of speaking, another kind of language that is in a way not a language at all. Music and words are not the same, although musicians talk as if music is a language. Musicians pay attention to breathing, phrasing, rests and resonance, wolf-tones and overtones, lyrical lines, or atonal tonalities, tempos and timing. I interconnect philosophy, poetry and literature. Lyrical or not, atonal tonalities, sensuousness and fastidiousness can be said about music, poetry, literature and philosophy. Just like doing a close reading of a literary text, a close reading of a musical score, translating the score, interpreting the score takes work and time. Playing a score is work. Saying I have work is often misunderstood. ‘A woman like that is misunderstood,’ Anne Sexton poeticises.

Practice – if it is done wrong – takes years to undo. Unlearning is probably half the battle of playing. The hands have memories, and, if they learn things that do not work, the undoing of that learning takes decades as well. Bad reading practices, like bad habits when playing an instrument or singing, will return and return until one pays enough attention to undo what was done. Well, Shakespeare says, what is done cannot be undone. True in a certain sense. But, in music, it is possible to undo what seemingly cannot be undone.

To undo bad practice habits or bad reading habits means making a commitment to unlearning and learning. Learning to unlearn is perhaps more difficult than getting it right the first time around. Unlearning what one has learned – especially as a child – requires diabolical discipline. The inner musical tyrant is a must. Becoming a musician is not for the faint of heart. Thomas Mann knew that. Adrian Leverkühn, a character in Dr. Faustus, made a deal with the devil to become a great composer. I suppose there is a lesson to be learned here. To do something well, certain deals must be cut. To the exclusion of all else, art that is life, or life that is art – as Hermann Kurzke says – means making sacrifices. Distance and aloofness, a solitary life is necessary for writing and composing. Doing philosophy requires the same kind of sacrifice. To think, one must be able to live in solitude. The solitary character is one that shows up time and again in Thomas Mann’s stories.

Although one engages with scores and texts written by others, there is a silent kind of dialogue of call and response, a kind of co-creation at hand interpreting texts, whether musical or literary. The book and the score in co-creation require fastidious discipline. Thomas Mann often uses the word fastidious to describe his characters. His literary masterworks are meticulous, extraordinarily eloquent and exquisite. Mann’s texts are inordinately rich, like the works of Beethoven or Schubert. When one reads Mann, string quartets come to mind. It is interesting to me that Dr. Faustus was – as Mann says at the very end of the novel – a study of Schoenberg, which was not obvious to me on my first reading. Ironically, I did not hear in the text something atonal – even though the detailed explanation of the twelve-tone system is made clear in the novel. Mann’s texts are lyrical, not atonal. The fastidiousness of the twelve-tone system might have been what Mann was interested in. But sheer fastidiousness in and of itself does not make for good writing or music. Adorno, like Mann, was fascinated by Schoenberg. I never could understand what that fascination was. Serial music had its day and perhaps reflected the catastrophic 20th century. But all of that is a thing of the past as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and, more recently, Max Richter have arrived on the scene. Lyricism, tonality and the beauty of the musical line returns. What I hear in Max Richter is Schubert more than anything.

To live life as art is to see everything as material, to use everything as material for one’s art. To philosophise, which for me is an art, means to see and use everything. As Thomas Wolfe put it in ‘A Stone, A Leaf, A Door,’ everything can be turned into art. But to do this on the level of, say, a Thomas Mann, one must live life as art. There is nothing that divides the artist and the life, life is art, art is life. There is no other way.

The diabolical, the tyrannical – in Plato – is often paired with Beauty, the Noble, the Good. As Plato points out, following Homer, all waters flow into one another: the finite in the infinite, pleasure and pain, jealousy, love and hatred, rage and gentleness are all mixed up. This is pointed out, especially in The Philebus. To unthink dualisms – the disaster set up by Enlightenment thought – is no easy task.

Some piano teachers emphasise technique over musicality, which, I think, is a mistake. Separating the right from the left hand first and then putting them together makes little sense to me. The left and the right hand should be played together as the score dictates, apart from Ravel’s Piano Concerto for Left Hand. Musicality is more important than technique, although, ironically, technique allows for musicality. Technique catches up with you, but after decades and decades of diabolical struggle, musicality will catch up with technique. One day, it will come, or it won’t. But, for some, it does, and then we have something on the level of the literary-philosophical imagination. To blend and integrate technique and musicality, the musician must become like Mann’s dog Niko, who ate one of Cassirer’s books. It takes a long time to digest a book; it takes even longer to integrate a score into the psyche.

Plato remarks that the soul is like a book – when words take on such significance to the point of madness – as Socrates discusses in the Phaedrus. Eros incarnate. Sometimes Plato writes about eros as a God but then brings eros down to earth, especially when the lover and beloved become as gods. Plato suggests that it is the beloved who teaches, for he is the one who can discern things – the ancient Greeks called this phronesis. On the contrary, the lover cannot discern things, for he has gone mad. The lover and beloved – the student and the teacher –together – engage in the magic that is erastēs: an erotically charged search for wisdom.

To take the long way around – what Plato calls dialogue – is that erotically charged call and response of conversing, philosophising and poeticising. Homer says that the waters flow into each other – this flow is, strangely enough, a diabolical encounter. Aube Tzerko, beloved pianist and teacher, a student of Artur Schnabel, once remarked to me that you cannot play Schubert until you are old, exhausted and have suffered – enough. Diabolical suffering is necessary on the way to becoming a musician.

Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, the remarkable book about falling down or being thrown down by a great Dane, is a testimony to agony. What strikes me about Rousseau’s text is that he asks a deeply philosophical question: what is enough to live a life? What is enough? If everything has been taken from you, what is left? Life itself. Rousseau’s art, his life as art, is captured in his writings. His philosophical question remains, resonates. For when all is taken away, is there enough to go on? Well, if life is enough, then yes. Perhaps Rousseau took the long way around. To fall, to be thrown down by a great Dane, to be utterly broken by the fall, raises Rousseau’s question: what is enough?

Writing was enough for Thomas Mann, who wanted nothing more than to have a well-ordered life, like a well-tempered Klavier. But that did not happen. The Nazis happened as if Germany was asleep. Or, perhaps not, but that is for another day. Something inevitably gets in the way: one takes a fall or is thrown down for whatever reason – or for no reason whatsoever. Along the way, finding texts or musical scores, engaging with literary-philosophical musings are enough. A book or a musical score keeps one going. Writing – the art of putting into words a fall or being thrown down by a great Dane – is enough. Even if no one reads what one writes. Even if no one hears the music that is made. It does not matter.

Thomas Mann, like Plato, writes philosophicalpoetic prose. Questions of beauty, the good, the noble, the diabolical, questions of war and warriors, death and illness: being thrown and being thrown down by forces not of our making throw into question complacency, mediocrity, taking the easy way out, taking short cuts. It must be stated that the good, beauty and so on are not Greek Ideals. Leo Strauss points out that ideal is not even a word in ancient Greek. In fact, today, there are no phrases like the good: moderns don’t understand this. Or, if these concepts do mean something, we cannot be sure what they mean or whether they are meaningless. But, for me – and, perhaps, in many ways, I am old school on this point – the good, or questions about what is noble, what is courageous and so forth, profoundly resonate. Of course, one can question whether anything means anything, which it probably does not. But, still, what draws me to Plato and Thomas Mann is that both ask questions about beauty, the good, the noble and the diabolical, that everything is mixed up with everything else. Thomas Mann, like Plato, throws everything together – stitching and unstitching – when things come together only to fall apart, to fall as if thrown down by a great Dane, as was the case with Rousseau. All three writers take up suffering, although suffering takes them down – except Plato’s Socrates, who, unlike Cassandra, does sing a swan song.

Thomas Mann, at once rational yet drawn by the occult, sought the beautiful whilst being plagued by demons. Gustav Aschenbach, the main character in Death in Venice, was ‘the poet-spokesman of all those who labour at the edge of exhaustion; of the overburdened, of those who are already worn out’; of those who have suffered enough, those who have had enough, or those who know what is enough or maybe have had enough, but still live a life, an artist’s life, the life of art or art as life – no matter how troubled and troubling things became. Suffering enough to play Schubert, plagued by demons, plagued by an inner diabolical homunculus, those who still get thrown but get up again, those who can digest a book – like Niko – writing words in the soul, those who have been done terrible wrongs, might identify with Thomas Mann. Writers are few and far between who can still engage the call and response of philosophical musings in a way that captures both the diabolical and the beautiful, who still believe that there is beauty in a horrible world without becoming Pollyanna-ish or stupid about it. Thomas Mann’s vast expanse of sense, of experience, astounds.

Something happened after Plato, some philosophic turn that I cannot abide. I do not know what happened, but something happened that got philosophers stuck somewhere along the way forgetting sense, forgetting that philosophy is literary, that philosophy can also be musical. Instead, the Enlightenment thinkers put philosophical music out to pasture. In the Phaedo, Socrates said that he had a dream that he had not practised music enough, the music of philosophising. The ancients did not separate music from philosophy, for philosophy was music, dance, poetry, literary – all the waters flowed together. Wedges, divisions, dualisms – despite what some might argue – did not exist in the same way that they were taken up during the Enlightenment. The poison and the cure are mixed up together.

It strikes me that, in Plato – like many ancient Greek writers, philosophers, poets – the dog, like the philosopher, is noble, a guardian, a warrior. Plato argued that philosophers, like dogs, should know who their enemies are and act accordingly – with spiritedness. Like dogs, philosophers should know who their friends are and act accordingly – with gentleness. Spiritedness and gentleness are mixed up together. Spirited roughly translates as anger. Righteous indignation, a philosopher must have. The Roman god of anger, Mars, does not suffer fools gladly, nor should the philosopher. Education sometimes calls for what David Purpel called Moral Outrage.

William Pinar suggests that education calls for symbolic representation – perhaps something akin to Cassirer’s symbolic forms; education calls for psychic movement – currere – amid horror and beauty. Psychic movement as symbolic representation, Pinar argues, is not linear but cyclical, much like Melanie Klein’s paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. As Cassirer stressed, there is no unity in symbolic forms. Wittgenstein admitted that to philosophise means to lose one’s footing in boggy waters. Avital Ronell suggests we engage in the ‘quicksand that is philosophy.’

In contradistinction, Thomas Mann wanted to live a well-ordered life, only to be thrown into chaos and catastrophe not of his making. Fleeing Nazi Germany, Mann came to the United States, only to be once more disillusioned with the rise of McCarthyism. Once again, they came for Thomas Mann, who eventually left the United States and fled to Switzerland. Politics pays attention to you when you do not pay attention to politics. Thomas Mann was hardly radical; one might even say that he remained conservative, in some ways, although he was also left-leaning later in his life. William Pinar suggests that we engage in a complicated conversation. Mann was that complicated conversation. Niko knew that.

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Full Citation Information:
Morris, M. (2024). Thomas Mann and Niko’s Cassirer. PESA Agora.

Marla Morris

Marla is Professor of Curriculum, Foundations & Reading, in the College of Education, Statesboro Campus, Georgia Southern University, GA, USA. She studied philosophy at Tulane University, religious studies at Loyola University, New Orleans and Education at Louisiana State University. Her main interests are postmodern philosophy, psychoanalysis, curriculum studies and systematic theology. She has published papers on Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Michel Serres, Simone de Beauvoir,  drawing extensively on the work of Gaston Bachelard and Donna Haraway. Marla has also worked in Holocaust studies, trauma studies, medical humanities and chaplaincy.