Saturday, June 29, 2013

Thomas Mann's The Black Swan

Thomas Mann:  The Black Swan

This short novel by Thomas Mann is one of his more unusual works, which really isn't saying much for an author who writes novels about a lengthy stay in a TB sanitarium or a composer's pact with the devil or the disintegration of a bourgeois family or the slow deterioration of an honored and respected scholar on vacation in Venice or about two young men in India who commit suicide over their love for a young woman who restores them by praying to the goddess and but gets their heads on the wrong bodies.

The Black Swan is described on the back cover as "the feminine counterpart"  of Death in Venice.  One could see that since it is the tale of an older woman who falls in love with a much younger man, perhaps half her age.  But, the differences are much more striking than the rather obvious gender reversal.

Frau Rosalie von Tummler is fifty and "her health had been affected by certain critical organic phenomena of her time of life, the extinction of her physical womanhood, to whose spasmodic progress she responded with repeated psychological resistance."

Rosalie is a true romantic, a worshiper of Nature, in most of her forms.  Upon seeing a gorge covered with blossoms, she exclaims to her daughter, Anna,  "Child, child, how wonderful! It's the breath of Nature--it is!--her sweet, living breath, sun-warmed an drenched with moisture, deliciously wafted to us from her breast.  Let us enjoy it with reverence, for we too are her children."  Because of her intense attachment to and focus on the physical aspects of Nature, Rosalie decries the contemporary interest of artists in the abstract and the intellectual.  Anna, a painter, is one of the "new" painters and part of the work consists of a dialogue between Rosalie and Anna about the lack of interest Anna shows in the colors and shapes and sounds and odors of the natural world. 

And herein lies the paradox, for it is Nature, Rosalie's divinity, that has decreed the physiological changes that she is now undergoing.  And her view?  "When it has ceased to be with us after the manner of women, we are no longer women at all, but only the dried-up husk of a woman, worn out, useless, cast out of nature. My dear child, it is very bitter .  .  . But we, take it all in all, are given just thirty-five year to be women in our life and our blood, to be complete human beings, and when we are fifty, we are superannuated, our capacity to breed expires, and, in Nature's eyes, we are nothing but old rubbish!"

Anna paradoxically disagrees: "How you talk, Mama, and how you revile and see to want to reject the dignity that falls to the elderly woman when she has fulfilled her life, and Nature, which you love after all, transforms her to a new, mellow condition, an honorable and more lovable condition, in which she still can give and be so much, both to her family and to those less close to her."  Rosalie, the worshiper of Nature, bewails what Nature has done to her, while Anna, the more cerebral and intellectual who ignores Nature in its physical manifestations, celebrates what Nature does for women at the later stages of life.

It is in this state of mind that Rosalie meets Ken Keaton.  He is much younger than her, as Tadzio is much younger than Doktor Aschenbach in Death in Venice, but there the similarity ends.  While Tadzio is fourteen, still a child, Ken Keaton is in his early twenties.  He is, or was, in fact, an American soldier who had come over with the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI.  He had been wounded, and after his release, he decided to take his discharge in Europe.  He supported himself by teaching English.

It was in this capacity that Rosalie met him.  Eduard, Rosalie's son, is studying to be an engineer and feels he must learn English because he wanted "to go to England for further study or perhaps straight to the El Dorado of technology, the United States."  He persuades Rosalie to pay for English lessons with Keaton.

Keaton comes three times a week and eventually becomes almost part of the family.  His presence at dinner following the lessons becomes a normal part of the von Tummler routine, and Rosalie soon becomes infatuated with him.  She does nothing though because she feels that she is no longer a woman and therefore Keaton would reject any overtures on her part, even though she is fairly certain he is having an affair with one of the women in her circle.

It is at this point that the "miracle" happens.  Rosalie greets Anna with the news: "Congratulate me, darling, there is reason of it!  I am a woman again, a whole human being again, a functioning female, I can feel worth of the youthful manhood that has bewitched me, and no longer need lower my eyes before it with a feeling of impotence.  The rod of life with which it struck me has reached not only my soul alone but my body too and has made it a flowing fountain again. Kiss me, my darling child, call me blessed, as blessed I am, and, with me, praise the miraculous power of great, beneficent Nature!"

But,  she is mistaken.  Nature, her divinity, has played a cruel trick on her.   Ironically she unknowingly prefigures her own condition when she walks in the Palace Gardens with Anna one day in February when she speaks of the early blooming crocuses: "Isn't it remarkable.  .  . how much they resemble the autumn colchicum? It's practically the same flower!  End and beginning--one could mistake them for each other, they are so alike--one could think one was back in autumn in the presence of a crocus, and believe in spring when one saw the last flower of the year."

Rosalie believes that Nature has restored her womanhood, but the sign she greets so happily is really a death sentence.

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