Tonio Kröger and other stories – Thomas Mann

all my friends have been demons, hobgoblins, phantoms struck dumb by the profundity of their insight–in other words men of letters

A real artist is not one who has taken up art as his profession, but a man predestined and foredoomed to it; and such an artist can be picked out from a crowd by anyone with the slightest perspicacity. You can read in his face that he is a man apart, a man who does not belong.

No: ‘life’ stands in eternal contrast to intellect and art–but not as a vision of bloodstained greatness and savage beauty. We who are exceptions do not see life as something exceptional; on the contrary! normality, respectability, decency–these are our heart’s desire, this to us is life, life in its seductive banality! No one, my dear has a right to call himself an artist if his profoundest craving is for the refined, the eccentric and the satanic–if his heart knowns no longing for innocence, simplicity and living warmth, for a little friendship and self-surrender and familiarity and human happiness–if he is not secretly devoured…by this longing for the commonplace!

–“Tonio Kröger”

Tonio Kröger and other stories is a collection of six short stories written by Thomas Mann and translated by David Luke. As an aside before talking about the stories themselves, I have a soft-spot for this style of book, namely the Bantam Modern Classic paperback from c.1970 when this was published. The size, page-feel, and covers epitomize what I like about physical books and I have a smattering of them in my collection. Admittedly, they can be a little fragile, but I find something sympathetic about even that.

This collection includes the stories “Little Herr Friedemann,” “The Joker,” “The Road to the Churchyard,” “Gladius Dei,” “Tristan,” and “Tonio Kröger.”

The first two stories are described by the translator as immature works and it easy to see why. This is not to say the stories are bad, but they share a singular preoccupation and do not contain much in the way of subtlety of plot. Both stories fundamentally revolve around young men have created an ascetic life away from society, one on account of physical deformity, the other temperament, but whose worlds are shaken when they meet, fall for, and are rejected by pretty young women. This theme recurs, including in the eponymous story where a young man flees respectable society because the other kids laugh at him during their dance lessons, but those stories do not have the same linear resolution.

A second common theme that unites the stories in this collection is art and artistic sensibilities, particularly in men, versus society at large. Not every story is about artists, though. “Gladius Dei” is about a man who feels compelled by God to condemn the overtly sexual representation of Madonna. The main character is offended by the art that he sees as a perversion, and there is not representation of how the artist feels about it—we are only told that the painting is famous, and the dealer is interested in the print because it will make him money.

Art, as Mann portrays it, is as much a curse as a blessing, since it leaves the artist watching life rather than experiencing life. The artists in these stories never get the girl, so to speak, but are forced to watch in envy, experiencing emotions that are fundamentally different from everyone else. At best the men of artistic temperament (whether they produce art or not) are watchers of people and sad young men; at worst they are bitter wastrels with an over-developed sense of superiority. The most extreme example of this is probably Detlev Spinell in “Tristan,” who is an author who lives in a sanatorium because the company and the decor suits him. Though he is not himself sick there is something sickly about him, as opposed to the healthy men of society.

Mann’s stories and presentation of art simultaneously repulsed and enthralled me. Yet, this translation reminded me just how much I enjoyed Mann’s style when I read Doctor Faustus and reaffirmed my ranking of that book among my all-time favorites. As a final note, it still remains a novelty for me to read short story collections, but also a nice change of pace.

Currently reading: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. I will finish this one…sometime.

French foreign policy in Africa

The “related links” tab on this Spiegel article is split down the middle between other pieces detailing French military action in the Central African Republic and articles bemoaning Germany’s unwillingness to risk military intervention on an international stage. This split is fair, since the article on one hand lauds France as “Europe’s sole military force” (subtitled “Giving France respect where it is due”) and bemoans that Germans and other Europeans “prefer navel gazing to action.” [1] Moreover, the article is linked to in another article detailing some of the challenges faced by the German military in Afghanistan and its as-of-yet minimal role in Central Africa as a new Defense Minister takes office.

The first article does a pretty good job of detailing the reasons why the recent history of French foreign policy so fascinates me:

  • France was one of the driving forces behind the NATO intervention in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi
  • Hollande was one of the loudest proponents of intervention of some sort against Assad’s government in Syria.
  • In January 2013, France used an invitation from the Malian Government and a delayed UN mandate to unilaterally conduct military action in Mali and expedite intervention from other African states.
  • In the past months, France has begun military intervention in the Central African Republic with the stated mission of preventing genocide.
  • Just this week it was reported that France is going to increase the size of military deployments in former colonies, saying that they intend to move to a regional counter-terrorism strategy in West Africa.

France is also encouraging other EU countries, Germany in particular, to contribute to these military ventures. So far Hollande has not had much success in this, though Germany is currently training Malian troops and is in the process of moving its main African troop-transport airbase from Senegal to Mali in order to react to potential threats more quickly.

In either case, French foreign policy since Hollande took office is a far cry from the stereotypical French opposition to any military intervention and subsequent creation of freedom fries.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defense Minister, has given two stated objectives to the most recent strategy developments:

  1. While running the risk of turning into Afghanistan 2.0 (with some of the same problems, but also some different ones), avoid the mistakes of Libya. This requires active and continued involvement of French troops in Africa rather than the distant and temporary military intervention and then letting the nation largely sort out its own problems.
  2. Change the paradigm from counter-terrorism within nations to a regional intervention.

One of the challenges of counter-terrorism is that the opponents are not only non-state entities, but they aspire to be non-state entities, meaning that they do not abide by borders that the counter-terrorist forces are at least supposed to acknowledge. During the French intervention in Mali, the al Qaeda-linked fighters slipped into the desert, often into the surrounding countries. If the French are successful in organizing a regional strategy with the prior cooperation of the nations in the region, they can bypass the issue of national sovereignty–and by having a pre-existing “intervention” in most of the countries, they can establish bases in a larger portion of the Sahel.

It is an ambitious foreign policy agenda in Africa. But in a region that has recently been destabilized by sectarian violence, coups, and multiple different groups of religious extremists, the project has a chance to pay dividends. The German authors suggest that the French people take a immense amount of pride in that their country still plays the role of a global superpower, which causes the collective eye-rolling in other Europeans (especially Germans). This statement may be a bit of a stretch, though Hollande certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered for catapulting France into this position.

The motivations for the main participants are pretty straightforward. France has economic interests throughout its former colonies (including its source of uranium) and so it makes sense to for it to intervene. The United States has little interest in intervention in Africa, but an active interest in curtailing al Qaeda-linked groups in the ongoing war on terror, so it makes sense for the US to support French action however it can. One of the question marks is how the former colonies perceive this strategic shift since it could be seen as a return of European colonialism. However, most of the coverage has indicated that the local populations do not want anything to do with radical Islam and the governments can gain regional stability and thus security from the presence of French troops.

Even though I am skeptical of military intervention as a solution for problems as entrenched as religious extremism and local violence, I am fascinated to watch this French endeavor unfold because it does seem to have been designed with care w/r/t the problems of modern counter-terrorism and be altruistic in as much as it is designed to prevent political instability in the region that threatens to create a situation comparable to Rwanda in 1994.[2] Economic and humanitarian aid will likely be necessary to stabilize the region, while military aid would provide a stop-gap measure since, as has been seen in Mali and elsewhere, the threats to the government and the local population go far beyond religious extremism and include ethnic divisions, multiple religions, corruption, and a-religious separatist groups.[3]

It is absolutely necessary to scrutinize this sort of action and the motivations of the parties involved, but I do believe that “first world” nations have a responsibility to help take care of other parts of the world. The critical question is how those nations help. Military intervention will probably be insufficient and it could well be that this action drags on a decade or more, but this is a much more efficient use of resources than were either of the recent US interventions. As far as this sort of action goes, this new French plan seems to be one of the better ones.

Of course, the really important thing about recent French politics is Hollande visiting his mistress on a scooter.


[1] The article also argues that the French are unwilling to conduct the economic reforms that the Germans have been pushing on the EU countries.
[2] There are economic motivations, too, of course, but this is a situation that there is enough of one that Hollande can try to intervene to prevent the image problem that would come with another African genocide.
[3] Despite a military strategy designed to circumnavigate the national borders, the West is still firmly committed to maintaining the existence of those borders.

Assorted links

  1. A Tsunami in Switzerland– New geological findings provide evidence that Gregory of Tours documented an actual event in recording a wall of water on Lake Geneva in 563 CE. The study discovered a massive deposit of sediment in the middle of the lake, likely put there by massive rock fall into the silt near the mouth of a river.
  2. Having Gone This Far Without Caring About Syria, Nation To Finish What It Started– The Onion, of course: “at press time, sources confirmed that millions of readers skipped past this story immediately after seeing the word “Syria” in the headline.” Likewise, from eight months ago: Alien World To Help Out Syria Since This One Refuses To.
  3. Gaza– A thoughtful consideration of the many problems with the Gaza-Israel issue. In short: there are no good guys in this issue.
  4. Syrian Rebels Have Lost Their Innocence– A story in Spiegel that discusses the violence in Syria. In short, what was once seen as relatively one sided violence perpetrated by the Assad regime has devolved into violence perpetrated by both sides. Promises of war crimes trials after the regime change seem less and less likely the longer violence continues.
  5. Turkish Call For Help Puts Germany in a Tough Spot– An article in Spiegel that discusses a recent call for NATO aid in setting up patriot missiles along the Turkish border with Syria after mortar fire landed in Turkey. Commentators says both that this would be a slippery slope toward German involvement in Syria and that Germany is somewhat willing to aid Turkey–and can’t refuse the request.

Assorted Links

  1. Promiscuous Reading-An essay in the New Yorker about a reader who had trouble completing books, even when interested in it. He notes that the last book that he read all the way through a work of shorter essays by a German philosopher, and suggests that most people have been training themselves to read texts with shorter attention spans, and thus get distracted even while enjoying the read. The short format, the author says, keeps his attention span while a linear novel does not. Perhaps there is something to it, but I find it odd that the book that achieves this end is one written before the internet. Frankly, I used to be like this, juggling up to eighteen books at once. Now, busier than I have ever been before, I am usually reading two books–one academic, one fun–but when I am interested in a book or have to read it for some reason, I read it to the end.
  2. A Critic’s Manifesto-An essay in the New Yorker that builds on the job of current debate about the role of critics. In one sense the author is correct that critics should have broad experience with the subject matter in order to make informed, substantive judgements, but in another, the author claims some special status for the critics since the true critics (a now deceased category of author) “know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger.” I do agree that crowd-sourcing reviews on a website like Amazon is not the most accurate form of review, but defending an elite and privileged status for critics when it comes to reviews is petty.
  3. Behavior Problems (Not Only Among Students)-An essay in the Chronicle about how the multi-tasking, procrastination, and digital distraction during meetings are not limited to students.
  4. German Shipyards See Future in Wind Power-According to Spiegel, German shipyards that no longer produce ships are turning to the production of parts for offshore wind-farms.
  5. ESPN: Everywhere Sports Profit Network-An article at Businessweek about ESPN and how it is has grown to be a corporation on par with the traditional powerhouses, largely by taking gambles and adapting quickly to new media, including the internet and mobile video. The idea has been to cater to the fans first, even if it means doing so without the direct monetization (ESPN mobile and streaming doesn’t include ad revenue), so that later they will have a foundation from which to bring in more advertising revenue. For example, ESPN podcasts are free and did not used to have corporate sponsorship, but in the past few years, those podcasts have begun receiving advertisements. Likewise, ESPN has managed to monetize live sports across media and multiple channels.
  6. The Rise of Settler TerrorismAn article from Foreign Affairs, shared with me by Will, recounts increasing violence and radical groups in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It concludes that the United States needs to redouble efforts to foster a deal that could end the violence, though much of the article also notes that many of the radical groups are unresponsive to leaders within the settlements or the Israeli government.
  7. B.C. minister warns against sex recruiters on campus-From Canada, where, evidently, strip clubs have been recruiting college students as dancers in return for money for tuition. The schools were warned that the clubs might try to put up booths at post-secondary school job fairs.
  8. The New Libya Searches for Justice-An article in Spiegel about Libya now, as trials for government officials, collaborators, and officers are about to begin. In particular, the article examines what is happening with guards (and murderers) and prisoners who took part in a prison riot and the bloody suppression and massacre in 1996.
  9. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Paul Ryan’s Influence on the G.O.P– A political feature about Paul Ryan, his upbringing, and his ability to bring about an ideological shift in the Republican party.
  2. German Mud Olympics Turns Attention from Lack of Real Medals– Apparently Germans are disappointed with their showing at the Olympics, but running at the same time are the Mud Olympics, a charity event held at the mouth of the Elbe River that includes Mud football, handball, and volleyball. Honestly, this looks like a ton of fun.
  3. German Media Slams Mitt Romney’s Tour Abroad-German media from across the political spectrum has been critical of Mitt Romney’s trip.
  4. Romney Comments at Fundraiser Outrage Palestinians-Sometimes I think news headlines deliberately try to obscure the meaning of the article, prompting people to read the article because they are confused rather than interested. In this case, though Romney spoke in Israel, claiming that the gap in per capita GDP between Israelis and Palestinians was (in part) because of “the hand of providence.” This is a standing theme for Romney, since he attributes the same cause to income gaps between The United States and Mexico, and Chile and Ecuador.
  5. Is Algebra Necessary?-An Op-ed by Andrew Hacker that is a pretty good case study of how not to write an essay. I was led to this article by a blog post by Timothy Burke that outlines the problems with Hacker’s argumentation. He does a really good job of outlining what this essay should look like and what it needs, and by pointing out the multiple ways that Hacker mostly just fumbles about without actually adding anything to the debate about Algebra in high schools. The comments also make pertinent additions about algebra and the piece.
  6. Israel Prepares Plans to Neutralize Syrian Chemical Weapons-A story in der Spiegel about Syrian chemical weapons, emphasizing that Israel is keeping a close watch on the developments, but also giving a rundown of the Syrian chemical weapons program and other preparations made by foreign countries (including the United States) to attempt to secure any such weapons.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Meta-Marxism in Wilhelmine German anti-Semitism

Disclaimer: This is a further discussion built off of my Historiography seminar 4.14.2010, and the book The Butcher’s Tale, by Helmut Walser Smith.

This book is focused on the Jewish ritual murder case of Konitz in 1900. In his section on accusations, Smith refutes that they were inherently about class and power struggles. He argues that some of the cases were, but that not all of the charges were brought by a lower class person against a higher class and therefore there was something more than class struggle at play.

What struck me, though, was the rhetoric used by the anti-Semitic newspaper making the ritual murder charges. When the Prussian army deployed to stop the riots, the newspaper denounced the act as the result of Jews running the state and running the police and army. This sounded eerily familiar to another book, namely Mein Kampf. This led to me ask another question: if the rhetoric claims that Jews are in power, can there be a larger sort of analysis that will hold up in terms of groups, but not individual cases? May any attack on a Jew, no matter class in either situation, be seen as a class struggle because of the perceived class?

This further begs the question of whose worldview matters: the historian or the contemporary? For example, if a group claims that the world functions via class struggle, and shapes their actions accordingly, does a historian a hundred years down the line have the right to claim the world functioned differently?