It's been many, many years since I read Mario und der Zauberer ("Mario and the Magician"), which, along with Tonio Kröger and Der Tod in Venedig, is one of Thomas Mann's greatest novellas. I wanted to reread it for several reasons: I just read Daniel Kehlmann's novel "F" (see my review) which begins with a public performance of a hypnotist, which reminded me of Mann's work. Secondly, the the whole phenomenon of the Pegida demonstrations as well as the adulation of Vladimir Putin made me think about the great theme of Mario und der Zauberer: Free Will (Willensfreiheit) and the longing to submit (Gehorsam) - the Escape from Freedom.
Mario un der Zauberer is just as enjoyable - and powerful - today as it was when it was first published in 1930. I especially admire how Mann, in the first half of the novella, builds up the tension which then boils over in Cipolla's (the magician) performance in the second half. The novella is subtitled "ein tragisches Reiseerlebnis" and indeed it does seem like a vacation from hell. The upper-middle class German narrator, on vacation in Torre di Venere, Italy with his wife and young children, is subjected to a series of humiliations from the local native population. There is a sinister sense of aggressive nationalism; even on the beach one could feel the presence of Il Duce. This unhealthy atmosphere, combined with the oppressive heat, sours the narrator's mood. He states more than once that he should have aborted his Italian holiday and returned home with his family. Yet they stay in Torre di Venere, and the performance of the renown magician Cipolla offered a welcome distraction from the misery.
Cipolla appears as a shabby reflection of Aschenbach, the artist-protagonist in Der Tod in Venedig. The magician is slightly deformed physically, poorly groomed, and dependent on copious amounts of tobacco and cognac to perform his routine. Yet Cipolla is in total command of his artistic powers as he effortlessly imposes his will on select individuals in the theater; the audience is mesmerized. Even the narrator, the bourgeois pater familias who knows he should bring his children home to bed, is transfixed by Cipolla and unable to leave his seat at the intermission:
Vor allem gab es nun eine Pause, und unser Gebieter zog sich zurück. Ich gestehe, daß ich mich vor diesem Punkte meines Berichtes gefürchtet habe, fast seit ich zu erzählen begann. Die Gedanken der Menschen zu lesen, ist meistens nicht schwer, und hier ist es sehr leicht. Unfehlbar werden Sie mich fragen, warum wir nicht endlich weggegangen seien, und ich muß Ihnen die Antwort schuldig bleiben... Zu entschuldigen ist es nicht, dass wir blieben, und es zu erklären fast ebenso schwer.
There is no resisting Cipolla's hypnotic power. Some submit instananeously, as if they had been waiting for this this very opportunity to relinquish their Willensfreiheit. A few, like the "man from Rome", put up a brave fight when the magician commands him to dance. Cipolla mocks him for attempting to resist: "Is this your idea of freedom?" And, indeed, the brave soul soon surrenders to the Ecstasy of Submission:
Man sah nun das Gesicht des Unterworfenen [...]Er lächelte breit, mit halb geschlossenen Augen, während er sich "vergnügte". Es war eine Art von Trost, zu sehen, dass ihm offenbar wohler war jetzt als zur Zeit seines Stolzes...
There is a strong sado-masochistic aspect to Cipolla's performance: he takes obvious pleasure in humiliating his subjects/victims - even erotic pleasure in the case of the waiter Mario - and his subjects are only too happy to submit to his whip. The social theorist and psychologist Erich Fromm discussed masochism as a component of fascism in his 1941 study Escape from Freedom:
"The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to his own inidividual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden of the self. Masochism is one way toward this goal. The different forms which the moschistic strivings assume have one aim: to get rid of the individual self, to lose oneself; in other words, to get rid of the burden of freedom."
Mario und der Zauberer has often been interpreted as Thomas Mann's warning to his fellow Germans about the danger of fascism. The warning is just as relevant today, with democracy under attack in Europe. Fromm wrote:
"There is one way to to define the real meaning of the difference between democracy and fascism. Democracy is a system that creates the economic, political and cultural conditions for the full development of the individual. Fascism is a system that, regardless under which name, makes the individual subordinate to extraneous purposes and weakens the development of genuine individuality."
(Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom )