Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Widow's Passion

The Black SwanThe Black Swan 
by Thomas Mann



"The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing."  - Blaise Pascal


In the early 1950s, near the end of his life, Thomas Mann wrote a novella about a widow, Frau Rosalie von Tummler, and her two children, Anna and Eduard. This story, The Black Swan, was based, like many of Mann's stories, on his observations and experiences of his own life. In a way the story mirrors Death in Venice written four decades earlier. That story told of the love of an older man, Gustav von Aschenbach, for a young boy. In the Black Swan we have an older woman, Rosalie, falling in love with young twenty-four year old American.

The story describes the American, Ken Keaton, as having "nothing in particular to offer except his fine physique". In one of her lengthy discussions with her daughter Anna, Rosalie idealistically describes Ken as "an absolutely exceptional human being, with a life that touches one's heart." Her daughter tries to counter this idealism with her own voice of realism to no avail. Just as in the earlier novel Eros has overtaken Rosalie to such a degree that she believes her body is defying nature by becoming more youthful. The tragedy in this story is the reality that Eros is accompanied by disease and, ultimately, death. This is signaled not only by the title of the story, The Black Swan, but from the first page when the death of her husband a decade earlier is highlighted with the poignant detail that it was due to a senseless accident while he was experiencing "superabundant vitality".

Throughout the novella Mann uses nature to provide a contrast with the artificial nature of Rosalie's idealistic aspirations. His depiction of two women who both have strong views is effective although rare in his fiction. In this story they know each other well, yet continue to approach the events from opposite views that seemed to allow no compromise. However Rosalie does think about what Anna has said "about 'living in contradiction to herself,' she remembered and pondered over, and she strove in her soul to associate the idea of renunciation with the idea of happiness. Yes, could not renunciation itself be happiness, if it were not a miserable necessity but were practiced in freedom and in conscious equality? Rosalie reached the conclusion that it could be."(p 105) Even here Rosalie is still idealistic and not ready for the denouement that will involve changes to her body that she can neither ignore nor control.

This is an unusual story, but if considered as I suggested above,  in light of Mann's portrayal of Aschenbach in Death in Venice, it is consistent with Mann's concern with life and death in light of classic themes of reason and passion. Even at the end of his brilliant career Thomas Mann was powerful and insightful in his exploration of the nature of humanity.

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4 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

I have really enjoyed your commentary on several of mann's works James. This post is no exception.

It sounds as if this book is filled with interesting ideas and strongly crafted characters, characters.

In the next year or so I plan to explore some of Mann's works.

James said...

Brian,
Thanks for your kind words. Thomas Mann's writing continues to fascinate me.
As with all of his work this is very much filled with ideas and layers of meaning. His shorter works are in many ways just as rewarding as his larger novels.

Parrish Lantern said...


Your wonderful & insightful post keeps reminding me of writers I thoroughly enjoyed & who have fallen to the wayside as new writers have grabbed my attention, not sure if I will, but I keep on meaning to explore writers such as Mann, to see if they still affect me as they once did.

James said...

I appreciate your insights on newer authors who are worthy of attention. In the meantime I enjoy reading and rereading certain classic authors. Tolstoy and Mann being my current focus.