Thomas Mann: A Philosophical Writer

He was born on the 6th of June, 1875, in Lübeck, Germany. His father was a merchant. He died in 1891, when Thomas was 16, after which the family moved to Munich. There, he attended the university, where he studied history, economics, art history, and literature. He lived in Munich from 1891 until 1933, with the exception of a year in Italy that he spent with his elder brother, novelist Heinrich Mann.

At first, Thomas worked for the South German Fire Insurance Company. His career as a writer began with contributing to a satirical weekly magazine. His first short story, “Little Mr Friedemann” (Der Kleine Herr Friedemann), was published in 1898.

In 1929, Thomas Mann became a Nobel Prize laureate in literature. That same year, he bought a cottage in the fishing village of Nidden (now Nida, Lithuania), where there was a German art colony, and where he spent the summers of 1930–1932, working on a four-part novel, “Joseph and His Brothers”.

Thomas Mann strongly opposed National Socialism. In 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, Mann went to Switzerland. In 1936, he received Czechoslovak citizenship. In 1939, he emigrated to the United States, where he taught at Princeton University.

In 1942, Thomas Mann with his wife and children moved to Los Angeles, California, where they lived until the end of World War II. In 1944, he was naturalized as a citizen of the United States. In 1952, he returned to Switzerland, where he died on August 12th, 1955.

“Doktor Faustus”, published in 1947, came as one of Thomas Mann’s most emblematic creations and, perhaps, one of 20th century’s most emblematic literary works. The novel was to a considerable extent inspired by the teaching and fate of Friedrich Nietzsche. This philosopher had earlier heralded the German nation’s predestination to embrace the most reckless, “biological” interpretation of the Absolute, originating from the Cosmic Soul, and specified as the “the Will-to-Live”. Nietzsche had declared repudiation of absolute knowledge and absolute values. Proceeding from Schopenhauer’s teaching, he called for the creation of a new mythology, a mythology without Gods, for the cult of Heroes abiding beyond good and evil, for the cult of the Überbmensch.

In a brilliant literary manner, interspersing his narration with multiple subtleties, amazing the reader with the excellent knowledge of music (his adviser here was an eminent musicologist, Theodor Adorno), Thomas Mann discloses all the delusiveness and disastrousness of the path outlined in Nietzsche’s teaching and shows its imminent failure, again, in the sphere of art. As a result, the major work composed by the novel’s leading character turns out a “stillborn child”, while the composer himself ends up with a complete breakdown.

As a writer, Thomas Mann is noted for the philosophic profundity of his approach towards the issues raised in his works and the exclusive honesty in exposing the thoughts, feelings, and passions of his characters. He wrote in his autobiography: “The value and significance of my work for posterity may safely be left to the future; for me they are nothing but the personal imprints of a life lived consciously, that is, conscientiously”.

It was not without Nietzsche’s influence, either, that the novel “Death in Venice” was written. In it, the question of a correlation between the “Dionysian” and the “Apollonian” principles in Man is raised, of the equilibrium of those principles reached in Ancient Greece, and this equilibrium’s disturbance that happened in subsequent centuries. Nietzsche believed the cause of such a disturbance to lie in the “predominance of Reason”. Thomas Mann, however, being a sensitive artist, not an ideologist, would not urge the restoration of the “Dionysian” principle. Rather, his message is about some desperate yearning for an unachievable ideal and immense spiritual and emotional suffering which the true development and the true rebirth of Man is, apparently, fraught with.


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