Thursday, March 05, 2015
Satire and Music
The Blood of the Volsungs
by Thomas Mann
Music and Literature, Part Two
Among the several stories included in this volume The Blood of the Volsungs is one that stands out in its differences and its use of music as a foundation.
This little drama begins at the dining-room table where both the theme of generational conflict between the parents and children of the Aarenhold family and 'racial' conflict between the family and an outsider, a government bureaucrat named Beckerath who is engaged to Sieglinde, the elder of two daughters in the family. In this story music is intertwined with the plot beginning with the twin brother, Siegmund, who with his sister mirror the siblings in Act One of Wagner's opera Die Valkyrie. But the musical influence goes beyond this as when, for example, one of the children taps out Hunding's motif (Sieglinde's husband from Valkyrie) when Beckerath appears for lunch; through the musical interlude at the opera which the siblings attend; and the ensuing incestuous behavior of the same upon returning home.
These themes are played out over a single day in the life of this family. We see the children, turning away from the valetudinarianism of their father and mother, focusing on their own interests. These interests do not include the sort of hard work that Beckerath represented and they looked down on him as well. And from his perspective "they contradicted everything--as though they found it impossible, discreditable, lamentable, not to contradict."
The importance of race is most intense for Siegmund whom is presented as contemplating his racial characteristics as he prepares for the evening with Sieglinde. But also he is depicted as completely lacking in any interest in creating anything with his life; instead he is consumed with a passion for maintaining his toilette, for preparing himself for the day, as the day passes away quickly with no actual happenings. This was no surprise to the family for they exhibited a "lack of expectations" that conspired to rob him of any "actuality".
This may sound like a strange story. Perhaps it is, but Mann succeeds in presenting high tragedy in the form of melodrama. His satire seems well-suited to critique the superficial nature of the bourgeoisie at the end of the nineteenth century (Mann wrote the story in 1905). The strength of the story comes in great part from the high art of the operatic drama that underlies it. It may be that Mann in an indirect way was indicating how powerful Wagner's genius really could be.
Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories by Thomas Mann. Vintage Books, 1989.