Thomas Mann is now in his' seventy sixth year, and it is only natural that his latest work—a brief novella called in German Die Betrogene (The Deceived)—should turn to a typical crisis of old age for its central symbol. In contemporary English literature, this crisis has also preoccupied the later poetry of W.B. Yeats, another great writer whose genius has waxed rather than waned with advancing age. And no better description can be found of the dilemma of Mann's heroine in The Black Swan than these lines from Yeats:
What shall I do with this absurdity— O heart, O troubled heart—this
caricature. Decrepit age that has been tied to me As to a dog's tail.'
Never had I more Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye That more expected the impossible....
It is this paradox of the failing body and the youthful spirit that Mann portrays in the history of Rosalie von Tummler, and which he transposes into his familiar symbolism of the dialectic in painful contrast with her physical debility, although externally she is still attractive enough to a young lover. Her daughter Anna advises her to reconcile this dilemma by adjusting her soul to her body, turning her love for the young man into a maternal affection that takes cognizance of her years. But Rosalie accepts her disequilibrium with agonizing joy, and refuses to strike Nature in the face "by stifling the spring of pain with which she has miraculously blest my soul.”
For one moment, indeed, it seems as if Rosalie's faith in Nature's omnipotence were to be rewarded. The forces of her soul apparently exercise a miraculous effect on her body and her womanly functions are restored. But nature's miracle turns out to have been the presage of a deadly cancer; and she dies shortly thereafter. Yet she tells her daughter Anna at the end:
“Never say that Nature deceived me, that she is sardonic and cruel. Do not rail at her, as I do not. I am loath to go away—from you all, from life and its spring. But how should there be spring without death.' Indeed, death is a great instrument of life, and if for me it borrowed the guise of resurrection, of the joy of life, that was not a lie, but goodness and mercy.”
Besides Rosalie, the only other figures in the book of any consequence are the daughter Anna and Ken Keaton, the young American. Rosalie's intuitive trust in the organic forces of life, her refusal to reconcile herself willingly to sedate sterility, are juxtaposed against Anna's antipathy to Nature and to the organic. Anna is a character familiar to all readers of Mann's early work—the artist whose absorption in the realm of the Spirit is symbolized by a physical disability. For Anna, born a clubfoot, is also an abstract artist, the one being a function of the other: both represent her alienation from life, which she transforms into intellectualized patterns on the canvas. Ken Keaton, the young American with a passion for local Rhineland history, is an amiable nonentity whom Mann good-naturedly caricatures.
None of the characters is developed with enough amplitude to make them very interesting, and Mann lavishes all his attention on the invention of symbolic detail. What determines the pattern of symbolism, of course, is the special quality of Rosalie's experience— the deceptive flowering of life and joy from death and corruption. Rosalie and Anna, in the course of a woodland walk, come upon a decaying piece of excrement arid the rotting corpse of a disintegrating animal. But' this disgusting pile exhales the distinct scent of a musk-like perfume; and so too is Rosalie's late blossoming, as she will learn all too soon, the effect of organic decay. Similarly, the scene in which Rosalie declares her love for Ken takes place in the abandoned rococo alcove of an old castle, once a pleasure-chamber for aristocrats but now moldering with damp and presided over by a decrepit Cupid.
Given the nature of Mann's symbolic purpose, it is quite understandable that The Black Swan should abound in slightly scabrous and repellant physical detail. This is not the first time that Mann has employed such material; and the critical question is whether he succeeds here, as he has in the past, in making the symbolic value of such material outweigh its ugliness. So far as The Black Swan is concerned, the answer must be that he does not.
Far too much of the brief novella is taken up with elaborate dialogues between Rosalie and Anna on intimate problems of female physiology; and Rosalie's experience never rises above the biological level. The human dimension of her metamorphosis is hardly developed at all, and the result is that her dying speech carries little conviction in terms of her character. Mann's intention in The Black Swan is movingly clear, and it is impossible not to respond to his mastery in certain descriptive passages; but his execution seems far too summary and perfunctory for so difficult an artistic task.
Thematically, The Black Swan is most dearly' related to The Transposed Heads, a work that Mann himself called "a metaphysical farce." There too Nature played her tricks on man, and body and soul could never quite get into the proper relation to each other; but the earlier work was conceived in a far more light-hearted spirit. The exotic Indian coloring of The Tramposed Heads gave it the air of a fable or a fairy-tale; its delicious irony arose precisely from, its remoteness and incredibility. The Black Swan, however, is set in twentieth-century Germany, and there is a macabre cruelty about the situation which, combined with the lack of fantasy, creates a distressing uncertainty of tone. The situation is too tragic to be taken as a joke, yet it is difficult to know whether Mann is being consciously or unconsciously grotesque when Rosalie says fondly of Ken Keaton; "In any case, he sacrificed one of his kidneys on the altar of his fatherland!"
Thomas Mann's work has a tendency to run in cycles, and it may well be that The Black Swan is the first imperfect approximation to the serious treatment of the theme handled comically in The Transposed Heads. Between this Indian jeu d'esprit and The Black Swan, Mann has interposed two major works of a different cycle. Both Dr. Faustus (whose towering greatness has not yet been fully appreciated in this country) and The Holy Sinnerdealt with sin and grace rather than with the body and the soul—the first book with apocalyptic seriousness, the second in a vein of affectionate parody and a mood of reconciliation. Perhaps Mann is now going back to the body-soul entanglement, and, reversing the order of his sin-grace cycle, converting his metaphysical farce into a metaphysical morality. If so, The Black Swan shows that he has not yet found the proper means to make this transition successfully.
This article originally ran in the July 5th, 1954, issue of the magazine.