Fictions of Identity: Modernism in Germany

  • Paul Coates


It is possible to be over-ironic about Thomas Mann’s aspirations to the status of ‘praeceptor Germaniae’. Michael Hamburger has been justifiably scathing about Mann’s tendency to bury his real comic artistry under a prestige-seeking ponderosity 1, and Musil applied the devastating tag of ‘der Grossschriftsteller’, a sort of cultured philistine. It can indeed be argued that the majority of Mann’s artistic life was expended in virtuoso, acrobatic strutting along the fence that divided the great modernists from a popular public. He thirsted for both varieties of success, popular and select, but the means he evolved to achieve it, though dazzling, were dubious and shifty. The magician — Cipolla in Mario and the Magician, the writer’s alter ego (for although Cipolla officially represents Mussolini, one recalls Mann’s own ‘brother Hitler’) — is always an ironist, for he knows that the feats his audience takes for magic are really tricks. Nevertheless I think a change came over Mann at the end of his life, a change caused by his realisation of the degree to which his work was compromised by its ambiguous genealogy — a suspicion that in one respect Hitler, if not his brother, may have been a not too distant cousin. The shock led him to turn himself inside out as an artist. The result was Doktor Faustus, his much-misunderstood masterpiece.


Fairy Tale Person Narration Phantom Limb Collective Consciousness Private Language 
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Thomas Mann: The myth of ‘Doktor Faustus’

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    T. Mann, Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1949) p. 36.Google Scholar
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    Ronald Gray, The German Tradition in Literature 1871–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965).Google Scholar
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Some aspects of The Man Without Qualities

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    K. Laermann, Eigenschaftslosigkeit, Reflexionen zu Musils Roman ‘Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’ (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1970).Google Scholar
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Franz Kafka: The Impossibility of writing

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    F. Kafka, Sämtliche Erzählungen (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer Verlag 1976), p. 299. All further references to Kafka will be to the paperback versions of this edition.Google Scholar
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    T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (London: Faber and Faber, 1969) p. 61. lines 5–6: `Winter kept us warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow’.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Paul Coates 1983

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  • Paul Coates

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