Thomas Mann, Mario and the Magician

Mario and the MagicianMario and the Magician by Thomas Mann

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“What is fascism?” one sometimes wonder. Scholars and historians can’t agree, but the Twitterati knows for sure. I see them post memes with slogans like “the original antifa” superimposed over grainy photos of American GIs in the Second World War. I am old enough to have had elder relatives and friends-of-the-family who fought in that war, though, and I don’t think I ever heard them, when they presided over my childhood at the end of the American century, use the word “fascism.” They tended instead to call their old enemies “Krauts” and “Japs.” As the racialized language indicates, their overall political views, not that any of them were especially political people, would likely be characterized by the aforementioned Twitterati not as anti-fascist but as, in fact, fascist. Isn’t that how their children—my parents’ generation, if not my literal parents—famously thought of them circa 1968?

Can the fiction of the fascist era help us to understand this conundrum? Maybe some of it, though probably not the works of Thomas Mann. The better fiction is, the stranger it is, hence its dangers if used as a primary source for the historian. The strongest novelists are demiurgic, creating their own world more than they are simply reflecting this one. That principle holds especially true for Mann’s famous 1929 allegorical novella of fascism, Mario and the Magician. Among this story’s many ironies is a depiction of fascism that the contemporary reader can’t help but regard as itself fascist.

The story is simple. Its narrator is a stately paterfamilias of a bourgeois German family who reminisces over a terrible holiday in Italy. First, the family was assailed by the newly nationalist spirit of the Italians under Mussolini. This national pride leads to the German family’s being exiled from their hotel’s veranda, unofficially reserved for citizens, and then expelled from the hotel itself at the behest of a fellow resident paranoid over one of the children’s lingering croup, as if foreigners as such were a kind of viral invasion (the contemporary meme-lover will laugh knowingly: “In the fullness of her feminine self-confidence she protested to the management…”). When the same child bathes naked in the sea, the fascist Italians, swelled with a self-important moral puritanism, denounce the family and force the father to pay a fine. An advertisement for a conjuror and magician named Cipolla soon appears, however, and the children’s excitement over this entertainment promises to redeem the vacation.

The rest of the novella is set at Cipolla’s show. The entire town turns out for the performance and duly finds itself ensorcelled by the strange magician. Despite his unpropitious appearance and behavior—he is a chain-smoking alcoholic with bad teeth, a spinal deformity, and yellow skin whose speech is full of pity for himself and insults toward the audience—he exerts a hypnotic power over the assembled townspeople. He forces a man to writhe in pain by the power of suggestion; he has another man laid like a plank over two chairs and sits on his outstretched body like the incubus in Goya. He mesmerizes a man’s wife until she nearly follows him out of the theater. When a native of Rome stands up to him, he shortly forces this resistant to dance. At the story’s climax, the magician confronts his co-eponym, Mario, a waiter at the hotel whom the narrator’s children have befriended. Cipolla hails the stocky Mario ironically as Ganymede and then makes the waiter kiss him “near the lips.” The unmanned Mario then breaks the spell and shoots Cipolla dead. The narrator and family abscond with their bad memories just as police arrive, and with this equivocal liberation the novella ends.

On the one hand, what could be clearer than Mann’s political allegory? Fascist Italy is in thrall to a talented demagogue who manipulates the citizenry into sympathizing with him until they do his bidding. Cipolla theorizes this people/leader fusion, in a passage surely meant to echo fascist rhetoric:

The capacity for self-surrender, he said, for becoming a tool, for the most unconditional and utter self-abnegation, was but the reverse side of that other power to will and to command. Commanding and obeying formed together one single principle, one indissoluble unity; he who knew how to obey knew also how to command, and conversely; the one idea was comprehended in the other, as people and leader were comprehended in one another.

Fascism, then, is overgrown nationalist pride wedded to the person of the ruler, who unites in his suffering body the miseries and powers of the populace construed as ethnos. So far, so good—this reflects what most people think about fascism, despite the disagreements and nuances of the scholars. For instance, though I am no scholar, I do think many believe that fascism may be an epiphenomenon of mass media, a political form impossible without cinema and radio. How strange, from this point of view, that Mann, in anticipation of his medievalizing composer in Doctor Faustus, should represent fascism as an almost pre-modern matter of stage magic, even having his narrator remark, “Perhaps more than anywhere else the eighteenth century is still alive in Italy, and with it the charlatan and mountebank type so characteristic of the period.”

The narrator’s emphasis on the particularities of Italy is not limited to the above passage. He attributes many of the difficulties he encounters to the “southern” temper, to “the emotionalism of the sense-loving south.” He complains of Italy’s weather in these terms: “The heat—if I may bring it in evidence—was extreme. It was African.” He further states that such a climate does not satisfy “the deeper, more complex needs of the northern soul.” Writing during Mussolini’s reign, but before Hitler’s, our German narrator if not our German author seems to understand fascism as an excess of the proximally savage Italian character. Cipolla’s own countenance exhibits, he says, “a primitive melancholy.” (That my aforementioned older American relatives who regarded their WWII enemies as “Krauts” were Italian by ethnicity is amusing in this context.)

Mann’s portrayal of the magician, though, draws from a different ideological tradition than that of reprehending Italy as Africa’s European beachhead. The sallow mesmerist, with his “long yellow fingers” and his ability to seduce the youth, with his charlatan’s cynical lust for profit and his derisive intellectual power lodged in a grotesquely material and deformed body—who is this but Svengali, and what is this but an anti-Semitic archetype? Furthermore, this magician’s climactic act is not only one of seduction, but of implied pederastic seduction, almost of Mario’s forced feminization.

Fascism for Mario and the Magician, then, is not only an absolute ruler’s claiming to embody and thereby control an ethno-national population, despite Mann’s acute observations of that phenomenon. In this novella, fascism is also the invasion of the complex and rational European soul—of the bourgeois father—by irrational energies that are southern and eastern, Oriental and African, queer and feminine. To borrow from yet another meme: you know who else worried about such an invasion?

I don’t raise these objections to the novella’s obviously failed “anti-fascism” to impugn Mann. The essence of his art, famously, is irony, and I doubt he lacked awareness of this novella’s ironies. If the bourgeois author was himself a devoted husband and father, a stolid German, he was also fatally attracted to the east and the south, he also recognized the appeal of the world’s Ganymedes (or Tadzios), and, as a popular novelist, he was also an entertainer enrapturing his public. In other words, Mann was as much the queer, southern, crypto-Jewish and crypto-African Cipolla as he was his novella’s northern-souled narrator. Levi B. Sanchez notes at the Modernism Lab:

Biographical details suggest that Mann turns this critical lens towards himself in Mario and the Magician. Biographer Anthony Heilbut notes similarities between Cipolla and his creator. Besides the obvious fact that the Mann children’s nickname for Thomas was the “Magician” (450), Heilbut observes that “…Cipolla shares many traits with Mann, including a bad case of artistic insecurity and a hopeless love of young men.” […] Another artist and manifestation of Mann, the narrator artificially manipulates the narrative to keep the reader’s interest in an almost identical fashion to the sinister Cipolla.

By giving us a narrator who complacently warns of fascism as an incursion from without, Mann is really warning us—and warning himself—of a fascism from within. I might compare this German-authored narrative of authoritarian magic in Italy with an Italian-authored narrative of authoritarian magic in Germany. In his 2018 reimagination of Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino portrays fascism less as a specific ideology or characteristic of any one group of people or political faction. It is rather the ruthless, loveless pursuit of identity and power per se, as apt to manifest itself in a coven of female artist-magicians as in a patriarchal right-wing political party. So we don’t miss the point, Guadagnino sets his story against the backdrop of the 1970s, when a wing of the radical left, children of 1968, became increasingly authoritarian and terroristic.

It is an old problem: how not to become what we behold, how not to transform into one’s enemy—how to be sure anti-fascism doesn’t become fully indistinct from fascism itself. Given our psychology, with its tendencies toward projective and dichotomous thinking, and given political realities, which often make violent confrontation seem fated, this may be an insoluble problem. Perhaps every anti-[X] is doomed by the occult law of similarities to become [X]; perhaps our time is better spent in simply not being [X] rather than defining ourselves against and therefore by [X]. The strongest fiction, if it is too complex to serve as historical evidence, succeeds in its world-making complexity by alerting us to these flaws inherent in the soul—the human soul, northern, southern, or otherwise.