Thursday, November 3, 2011

Thomas Mann: The Transposed Heads

Thomas Mann: The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India

This is not only a short novel by Thomas Mann, it’s also a very unusual novel for him. It’s set in India, in mythic times, so, therefore, it must be true. I’ll let Mann introduce the novel, for he does it much better than I ever could.

The story of Sita of the beautiful hips, daughter of the cattle-breeder Sumantra of the wqrrior caste and of her two husbands (if one may put it like that) is so sanguinary, so amazing to the senses, that it makes the greatest demands on the hearer's strength of mind and his power to resist the gruesome guiles of Maya. it would be well for the listener to take pattern from the fortitude of the teller, for it requires, if anything, more courage to tell such a tale that to hear it. But here it is, from first to last, just as it fell out:

As you may have guessed, this is a tale of the eternal triangle and the way it worked itself out in India of mythic times—the tale of Sita, Shridaman and Nanda.

Young Shridaman was a merchant, and the son of a merchant; Nanda, on the other hand, both a smith and a cowherd, for his father Garga not only kept cattle on the meadow and in the byre, but also plied the hammer and fanned the fire with a bird’s wing.

Shridaman followed in his father’s footsteps after “having previously devoted some years to grammar and the elements of astronomy and ontology, under the supervision of a guru or spiritual preceptor.

Not so Nanda, son of Garga. His karma was otherwise; and never, by either tradition or inheritance, had he had to do with things of the mind . . . His work as a smith had made powerful his arms; that as a shepherd had been further an advantage, for he had a well set-up body, which he loved to rub with mustard oil adn drape with gold ornaments and chains of wild flowers.

Shridaman, on the other hand, had a thin aristocratic face and a soft body, not hardened by exercise. It was the perfect body for "a noble and knowledgeable head piece." Nanda's head to the contrary was merely a "pleasing appendage" for the body was "the main thing."

In spite of, or perhaps because of, these differences Shridaman and Nanda became good friends. All was well until they met Sita, she of the beautiful hips. Both became enamored of her, but it was Shridaman who spoke first. She accepted his proposal, but they did not live happily ever after. Shortly after the wedding, Sita began to wonder if she hadn’t made a mistake, especially after seeing Nanda, for he was a frequent visitor. Eventually both Nanda and Shridaman became aware of the situation.

Six months after the wedding, the three went to visit Sita’s parents. On the trip, they found a temple to Kali. Shridaman said he wished to pray a moment and entered the temple. There he prayed to Kali and then cut his head off (obviously with Kali’s help), thus freeing Sita to marry Nanda.

Eventually Nanda goes looking for Shridaman and finds his friend. He realizes instantly why Shridaman has done this and feeling guilty as the cause of his best friend’s suicide, he resolves he cannot do anything but to follow his friend into death.

After a while, Sita becomes concerned and enters the temple in search of them. She finds them and although confused as to how it happened, she understands very well why it happened. She decides also to commit suicide by hanging herself. While she stands there with the noose around her neck, Kali appears and tells her to take the noose off or she will get her “ears boxed.”

Kali tells her that all will be well, for all Sita has to do is put the heads carefully back on the bodies and she (Kali) will do the rest. Sita does but in her sorrow and grief makes one minor mistake—she puts the heads back on the wrong bodies.

At first Nanda and Shridaman are happy with the transposition, for both had been afflicted with “the grass is greener” longings—Shridaman for Nanda’s physique and Nanda for Shridaman’s intellectual bearing and appearance. But, you may be surprised to learn (or perhaps not surprised) that all still is not well with the threesome.

From this point on, three issues are worked out in the story: (1) to whom is Sita married?; (2) what happens to Shridaman’s fine aristocratic head and intellectual capacities on Nanda’s strong young body?; and (3) what happens to Nanda’s broad happy face and rather ordinary intellect on Shridaman’s intellectual and clerkly body?

The ultimate question addressed here, therefore, is which creates and rules the person—the mind or the body?

Overall Reaction: an unanswerable question that Mann handles with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Lots of fun if you are looking for a novel that plays with ideas.


  1. I am getting ready to expand beyond Magic Mountain into Death in Venice-I also have an e book of seven of Mann's short stories I hope to begin reading soon-the work you proposed sounds very interesting to me-one of my interests is pre-WWII Indian literature so it would be interesting to see Mann's take on India-of course some will see this book as a prime example of Orientalizing-

  2. Mel u,

    Sounds like an interesting project. Mann has a number of very interesting short works.

    As for "Orientalizing," well, one can find most anything in the eye of the beholder. Those who want or need to find orientalizing in this work will find it, no doubt.

    I wonder if the same ones would find some of Hesse's works to be "Orientalizing"?