A Letter From Thomas Mann To Theodor Adorno - Re Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 2 August 2016 | 5:14:00 pm



THOMAS MANN TO THEODOR W. ADORNO
ZURICH, 30–31.10.1952

Dear Dr Adorno,

‘However, if a decadent society develops the seeds of the society that will perhaps one day take its place …’ If there were only a single positive word, my honoured friend, that vouchsafed even the vaguest glimpse of the true society which we are forced to postulate

Not knowing your precise address, I have directed these lines via the publisher who sent me a copy of the ‘Wagner’. I have been reading it for days with the greatest sense of urgency. It is a tremendous book, fascinating for its perspicacious intimacy with an object which, for all of your enforced admiration (unintentionally breaking through now and again), still reveals itself as one of the greatest and spiritually liberating things that has ever presented itself to critical reflection. The most authoritative chapter is surely that on the instrumentation, which is itself so closely connected with ‘phantasmagoria’, with the ‘concealment of the productive process through the appearing product’, as the governing principle of Wagnerian form. These pages have clearly shown me the degree to which I am a Wagnerian – and to which I am not. I have followed Wagner’s example in many respects, I have ‘recalled’ his works in many ways. But the illusionistic character of a work of art that would present itself as reality is entirely alien to me and has never fired my artistic ambitions. My own relationship to the ‘work’ itself was always too honestly ironical for that, and I have always taken pleasure in compromising the act of production in some humoristic fashion or other.

The terror of late bourgeois society and that of the ‘new’ society stand armed to the teeth over against each other and at any moment everything might ‘through some incalculable error just go up in smoke’. All that I can see approaching, spreading and irresistibly advancing upon us, is barbarism.

But that is all by the by. Your book is enormously interesting on every page. I have made innumerable pencil jottings in the text, and some minor queries as well. One of these concerns ‘the singing voice is detached from the life of music and its logic: to sing a motif would conflict with the requirement of natural intonation.’ This does not seem to be entirely true. Quite a few motifs are sung, the most striking example being the ‘Annunciation’ addressed to Sieglinde: ‘For know one thing, and remember it indeed: the noblest hero of the world you bear, O woman, within your sheltering womb.’ Another example would be Alberich’s curse upon the gold, which, like Lohengrin’s injunction ‘Never shalt thou ask’, clearly shows how a motif is often sung first, before the orchestra then takes it up again in various reminiscences. In the ‘Liebestod’ Isolde also sings a good part of the melody (from Act II), although it is true that subsequently the voice merely follows ‘the harmonies of the orchestra’. And there are other cases.Most of all I was impressed by the pages towards the end on Wagner’s work as an expression of incipient decay of the bourgeois world. ‘There is not a single decadent moment in Wagner’s work from which productive insight could not extract the forces of change.’That reveals very great insight, as does the remark about ‘the neurotic’s ability to contemplate his own decadence and to transcend it’. And likewise the question: ‘whether Nietzsche’s criterion of health is of greater benefit than the critical consciousness that Wagner’s grandiose weakness acquires in his commerce with all the unconscious forces responsible for his own decadence … the bourgeois nihilist sees through the nihilism of the age that will follow his own.’ This is superb! And then the remarkably prophetic quotation from ‘Religion and Art’.

 



‘However, if a decadent society develops the seeds of the society that will perhaps one day take its place …’ If there were only a single positive word, my honoured friend, that vouchsafed even the vaguest glimpse of the true society which we are forced to postulate! In this respect, and only this, your own reflections from damaged life say nothing. But what is right here, what would be right here? On one occasion you quote Lukács with approval, and much of what you say suggests a kind of purified communism. But then what is that? The Russian despotism is a mistake. But is communism really conceivable without despotism? ‘It’s not this, and it’s not that.But what – what then will it be in the end??’, as Michael Kramer says.

The terror of late bourgeois society and that of the ‘new’ society stand armed to the teeth over against each other and at any moment everything might ‘through some incalculable error just go up in smoke’. All that I can see approaching, spreading and irresistibly advancing upon us, is barbarism. Our higher literature strikes me as little but a hasty résumé and parodic recapitulation of the western myth before the final onset of the night. How many of us are there now who can still ‘recognize’ the ‘fundamental experiences of the bourgeois era’ can still understand the passage where the horn ‘catches the echo of the shepherd’s melancholy song’? We are fast shrinking in number and already find ourselves surrounded by masses who can no longer ‘recognize’ anything. May heaven grant us something of that productive energy which can wrest fresh moments of the new from every moment of decay!

Yours,
Thomas Mann