Sunday, July 2, 2017

a sort of intoxication with his own identity - Thomas Mann and his dog

The last three novellas in Death in Venice and Other Stories form a “bourgeois trilogy.”  Thomas Mann, white-collar professional, an ordinary Municher with kids, a dog, and Italian beach vacations.  The most recent story, “Mario and the Magician” (1929), just uses the narrator and his family as a point of view.  Since the story is about a powerful hypnotist and his perhaps final melodramatic performance, I do not understand the need for this particular set of characters, but perhaps they were just at hand.   If Mann is going to send some Germans to Italy, why not make them a lot like those in “Disorder and Early Sorrow” (1925).

That one really is about the Mann-like family, with a college professor, a couple of teenagers who throw a party, and some littler kids who get to tag along, with tragic, in a very limited little kid sense, consequences.  That’s the “Early Sorrow.”  The “Disorder” is partly personal to the professor, partly a description of the party and its crazy jazz records, and partly the chaos of Weimar Germany – “the salary Cornelius draws as professor of history – a million marks.”  Pretty interesting.

Maybe the whole thing is a parable about Weimar.  I hope not.  But that Italian hypnotist in “Mario the Magician” is in some sense Mussolini.  What do I know.

“A Man and His Dog” (1918) is not a parable, is it?  A symbolic whatnot about the war?  What makes this novella or memoir the most guacamolesque piece of Mann’s, enjoyed by readers who otherwise have little patience with Mann’s symbolizing, is that it genuinely appears to be about Mann’s “short-haired German pointer” Bashan.  It is a great piece of dog writing.  Over seventy pages it is inevitably digressive, but the digressions are mostly about the dog, and the exception is a long description of the woods where the dog likes to hunt.

The story is warm, lightly humorous, a deep act of sympathy and imagination that gives the dog a lot of character without compromising his doggishness.  Maybe that’s the parable – maybe it’s about the core fictional act, the creation of a character who is not the author.  Bashan is very much himself.

And what do I say to him?  Mostly his own name, the two syllables which are of the utmost personal interest because they refer to himself and have an electric effect upon his whole being.  I rouse and stimulate his sense of his own ego by impressing upon him – varying my tone and emphasis – that he is Bashan and that Bashan is his name.  By continuing this for a while I can actually produce in him a state of ecstasy, a sort of intoxication with his own identity, so that he begins to whirl round on himself and send up loud exultant barks to heaven out of the weight of dignity that lies on his chest.

Maybe the hypnotist is not Mussolini but the author, making his characters do anything he wants.  Or maybe the hypnotist is his opposite – he suppresses his victims’ identities, while the author creates them and sets them loose on the world.

A writer can do a lot with a walk with a dog.

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