Thomas Mann’s international fame as a novelist ran parallel to the equally celebrated career of Sigmund Freud. He respected Freud’s courage and genius, praised Freud (nineteen years his senior) in his public speeches and correspondence, acknowledged Freud’s influence on his work and visited him four times in Vienna. The third occasion, on Freud’s 80th birthday, was a deeply moving experience for both of them. Despite their contrasting personalities—the stiff German and the gemütlich Viennese —they transcended the emotional barriers and became quite close. Mann was strongly attracted to Freud’s theory about the danger of suppressing sexual desires, yet was ambivalent about Freud’s ideas. He was suspicious about psychoanalysis and satirized Freud’s analytic theories in The Magic Mountain. His two essays on Freud emphasized the value of instinct over reason, which reflected his own views rather than Freud’s.
They honored each other’s work, and Mann was unusually deferential and flattering, but he disguised his intellectual doubts about Freud. Mann could exploit in his fiction Freud’s concepts of the meaning of dreams, the role of the unconscious and the effects of sexual repression even though he didn’t actually believe in them. Freud’s theories enabled himto write about homosexual feelings, then a taboo subject, and hide his own attraction to handsome young boys and men, including (as we shall see) his own son.
Most significantly, these friends had two amazingly similar biographical experiences. During the Nazi persecution of the 1930s, both managed to suppress incriminating personal documents that could have destroyed their reputations and ruined their lives. The tragic death of Freud’s beloved young grandson in 1923 and Mann’s fictional portrayal of the horrific death of Adrian Leverkühn’s nephew Nepo in Doctor Faustus revealed that both men had the same emotional response, real and imagined, to that traumatic situation.
In a 1925 interview with La Stampa in Turin, Mann told an Italian journalist that Freud had influenced Death in Venice (1912), in which the author Gustav von Aschenbach, infatuated by the beautiful boy Tadzio, lingers in cholera-infested Venice and dies in that city. He said, “The death wish is present in Aschenbach’s consciousness though he’s unaware of it, and the word Ich [Ego] is used in the Freudian way to indicate a part of the personality that makes demands in conflict with instinct.” He gave Freud more credit than he deserved by disingenuously claiming, “without Freud I would never have thought of treating this erotic motif; or I would certainly have treated it differently.” But since the novella was closely based on Mann’s actual experience in Venice, he didn’t need Freud to inspire the story. He was intimidated by Freud’s “X-ray” invasion of the artist’s soul and suspicious of probing psychoanalysis. He felt that when an author’s mind is invaded, and all his secrets exposed and wasted in talk, “the source of creativity fritters away.”
While Death in Venice uses Freud as a means of articulating Mann’s personal feelings, The Magic Mountain (1924) treats Freud’s ideas with black humor. Dr. Krokowski, who glows with an eerie phosphorescent pallor, advocates the psychoanalytic point of view and probes the unconscious. He suppresses the pathological origins of epilepsy and calls it an “orgasm of the brain.” He believes that organic disease is always a secondary phenomenon, a morbid growth upon the spirit. He argues in a series of lectures on “Love as a force contributing to disease” that illness results from the conflict between the powers of love and of chastity—between instinct and repression, the id and the ego. He thinks that when love is held in chains by purity, fear, morality or aversion, it reappears in the form of illness: “Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed.” Krokowski’s theories about disease and love suggest that sexual freedom, though discouraged by the medical authorities because of its adverse effect on tubercular lungs, would cure the disease. When Hans Castorp finally makes love to Claudia Chauchat his fever increases and health deteriorates. Though this decline could be attributed to her sudden departure and his consequent sexual deprivation, the disease is both the expression of and the penalty for love.
Castorp’s mentor, the Italian humanist Ludovico Settembrini, opposes Krokowski’s views. He exclaims that psychoanalysis, with the patient recumbent on a couch, is bad in so far as it encourages passivity: “It stands in the way of action, cannot shape the vital forces, maims life at the roots.” Mann’s biographer Anthony Heilbut states that “Mann treats psychoanalysis with skepticism. He captures the moment when it was still regarded as half-quackery, and he makes it a part of commercial history, a tourist’s entertainment along with mountain hikes and afternoon tea… . Dr. Krokowski conducts a séance, a reminder that psychoanalysis shares its origins with such spurious pursuits as phrenology and clairvoyance.”
Mann praised the liberating effects of the instincts in his essays on Freud while portraying their disastrous effects in his fiction. Despite Mann’s satiric and skeptical portrait of Krokowski, he publicly praised Freud during the last decade of the analyst’s life (1929-39), when his leading disciples were still alive and spreading his gospel, and as Mann’s reputation continued to soar. Mann’s rather abstract and repetitive essay, “Freud’s Position in the History of Modern Thought” (1929)—published the year Mann won the Nobel Prize—focused more on his heroes in the German Romantic tradition, Novalis, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, than on the ostensible subject of Freud. Mann rather ponderously described it in a letter of May 3, 1929 (not included in the English edition of his Letters) to the French writer Charles Du Bos: “At this moment I’m thinking about an essay on ‘Freud’s Position in the History of Modern Thought,’ an extensive treatise on the problem of revolution, full of educational purpose and particularly intended for those who recognize psychoanalysis as the only phenomenon of modern anti-rationalism which does not lend itself to reactionary misuse” (my translation).
In this subtly autobiographical essay Mann placed Freud in his own literary tradition and described him as the advocate of dark gods. Mann wrote: “As a delver into the depths, a researcher in the psychology of instinct, Freud unquestionably belongs with those writers of the nineteenth century who … stand opposed to rationalism, intellectualism, classicism … emphasising instead the night side of nature and the soul as the actually life-conditioning and life-giving element.” He represents in the “most revolutionary sense the divinity of earth, the primacy of the unconscious, the pre-mental, the will, the passions, or, as Nietzsche says, the ‘feeling’ above the ‘reason.’” Mann exalted the “night side” of man, but the second sentence on the “primacy of the unconscious” does not logically follow from the first, and his evidence from the German Romantics seems to contradict his conclusion. The opposition to reason and intellect, the domination of Nietzsche’s passionate will to power, have not been “life-giving,” but have led straight to the horrors of the twentieth century.
Mann’s observations illuminated his own work rather than Freud’s. Mann’s comment, “Schopenhauer humbles the intellect far below the will, before ascribing to it a means of moral conversion and self-regeneration,” alluded to Thomas Buddenbrook’s reading the chapter “On Death” in The World as Will and Idea just before he collapses in the gutter and dies. Mann’s observation, “the neurotic symptom … is the pathological consequence of suppression,” explained Aschenbach’s illness after he has repressed his love for Tadzio. Mann’s description of Freud as “a psychologist of the depths, an investigator of the unconscious, that makes him understand life through disease,” reprised his portrayal of Krokowski’s ideas in The Magic Mountain. The “mischievous guilelessness, the frightful, equivocal, oracular obscurantism of music” prefigured the diabolical source of Leverkühn’s musical creation in Doctor Faustus.
Freud, an astute reader, made an extremely shrewd analysis of the etiology of Mann’s patched-together essay. He saw that when Mann was invited to turn out an encomiastic piece on Freud he reached for the old papers in his bottom drawer. On July 28, 1929 Freud wrote to his devoted follower, the femme fatale Lou Andreas-Salomé, who’d been an intimate friend of Nietzsche: “Thomas Mann’s essay is no doubt quite an honour. He gives me the impression of having just completed an essay on romanticism when he was asked to write about me, and so he applied a veneer, as the cabinetmaker says, of psychoanalysis to the front and back of this essay: the bulk of it is of a different wood.” But he didn’t dispute Mann’s friendly thesis and concluded, “Nevertheless, whenever Mann says something it is pretty sound”—even if Mann was talking about himself.
In January 1930, soon after his first essay, Mann effusively wrote to Freud—calling him a courageous genius—and thanked him for an unidentified short work, probably one of Freud’s best books, Civilization and Its Discontents. He was grateful “for the extraordinary gift of your book, whose range so formidably surpasses its outer dimensions. I read it at one sitting, deeply moved by a courageous search for truth which, the older I grow, I see more and more as the source of all genius.”
Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones records that in March 1932, between his first and second essays on Freud, Mann paid his first visit to Vienna and they established an immediate rapport, what Goethe called an “elective affinity.” Jones writes, “Freud at once got on to intimate terms with him: ‘what Mann had to say was very understanding; it gave the impression of a [cultured] background.’ His wife and her sister, who were enthusiastic readers of Mann, were still more delighted.”
In May 1935 Freud told their mutual friend, the German anti-war novelist Arnold Zweig, that he’d followed the suggestion of Mann’s publisher Fischer Verlag, sent Mann in Zurich a customary tribute on his 60th birthday and “into it slipped a warning which I trust will not go unnoticed.” He wrote: “in the name of countless numbers of your contemporaries I wish to express the confidence that you will never do or say anything—an author’s words, after all, are deeds—that is cowardly or base, and that even at a time which blurs judgment you will choose the right way and show it to others.” There was certainly no need to warn the brave and upright Mann not to be cowardly nor compromise with the Nazi regime. But he wanted to continue their mutual flattery and emphasize, as Mann well knew, that Mann was speaking for all the prominent anti-Hitler exiles.
In his laudatory speech “Freud and the Future” (1936) Mann again widened the focus to include Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Writing to celebrate Freud’s 80th birthday on May 6—at a time when books by Freud and Mann had been burned in Germany—Mann praised him as a master, great scientist and wise genius. He saw Freud as scientifically validating the philosophical insights of the German Romantics—though there was no scientific basis for psychoanalysis—and dubiously claimed that Freud’s work “shall be the future dwelling of a wiser and freer humanity … productive of a riper art than any possible in our neurotic, fear-ridden, hate-ridden world.”
But neither Freud’s theories nor Mann’s public approval ever explained how the triumph of instinct over reason would regenerate humankind and lead to a better world. In a letter of January 1944 to the American literary critic Frederick Hoffman, Mann alluded to Plato’s charioteer with the tamed and wild horses and to the Dionysian-Apollonian opposition in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, and stated that Freud “knows well the abyss of the unconscious and the instincts which by far exceed the power and the influence of intellect and reason.” He quoted Freud’s optimistic proclamation in his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, “where Id was, there shall Ego be,” but seemed to reverse it by suggesting where reason was, there shall instinct be. Nevertheless, he generously acknowledged Freud’s powerful influence on his work from the sexual humiliation in “Little Herr Friedemann” to Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain and the Joseph novels: “it made me aware … of my own latent, preconscious sympathies.”
Mann’s Diary described the rapturous reception of his speech on May 8, 1936, which took place less than two years before the German annexation of Austria and Freud’s flight to England: “In the evening the tumultuous success of the Freud lecture in the packed hall of the [Vienna] Konzerthaus. That morning a visit to Freud’s apartment, bringing him the portfolio and the manuscript; deeply moving impressions. After the lecture a banquet at the Imperial [Hotel], I seated between Freud’s son and daughter,” Ernst and Anna. Though Mann was the guest of honor, he felt proud to be placed next to Freud’s children.
Max Schur, Freud’s close friend and personal physician during his thirty-three agonizing operations for cancer of the jaw, was delighted to hear Mann’s praise and confirmed that it was indeed a splendid occasion. He agreed that it was a “deeply moving” event, said that Mann gave a poignant performance (which disguised Freud’s dubious ideas) and noted that Freud felt it verified the truth of his controversial theories:
Mann’s address was thus a tribute not only to Freud but to the power of the spirit, to the rights of the individual … a ringing challenge to the forces of unreason and evil. Mann, who usually was rather detached and distant as a reader or speaker, rose to the occasion in the delivery of his address as well as in its content. It was a deeply moving experience for everyone present, giving us the feeling, which was rare in those days, that all was not yet lost… . It was to Freud a summary of his life’s work, a vindication for the years of calumny and misunderstanding he had endured, and a confirmation that it really had been worthwhile to have lived that long.
Since Freud was too old and too ill with cancer to attend the festivities, Mann enhanced his tribute by personally repeating his oft-repeated talk in Freud’s holiday house in Grinzing, a wine village outside Vienna. After delivering his lecture in several European cities, he returned to Vienna five weeks later on June 14. Schur recalled that “Freud and Mann were poles apart in looks, behavior and even attire. Freud, the Jew who had absorbed the good aspects of Viennese culture and civilization, and Mann, the typical North German, in some ways as stiff as the collar he was wearing.”
The contrast in their personalities (which contradicts Jones’ account of their congenial meeting in 1932) was mitigated by Mann’s Jewish wife Katya. Freud was well pleased by the encounter and recalled, “this was a great joy for me and for all my family who were present. A noble goy!” Freud’s son Ernst deleted and Schur restored the last three words, which conceded that Mann, though not Jewish, had a noble character. (Mann had offended Katya’s family by having fictional characters modeled on them using Yiddish words—“We’ve beganeffed him—the goy!”—in the serial version of his story “The Blood of the Walsungs,” which he suppressed.) Mann’s biographer Donald Prater adds that Freud “was near to tears as he listened to his personal reading of the lecture and eagerly discussed his idea of myth constantly relived… . He embraced him warmly, and sent to his hotel a bottle of old Tokay with fruit and cakes, which made an excellent lunch for them on the train back” to Zurich. Freud was accustomed to constant veneration from his Jewish admirers. But he was deeply moved by the intellectual endorsement and personal tribute from the gentile Thomas Mann, the greatest living German writer.
In “Freud and the Future” Mann remarked, “how often have we not been told that the figure of Napoleon was cast in the antique mould!” Freud took up this idea in a comical tailpiece to their meeting. A few months later, in a letter of November 1936, he retaliated by subjecting Mann to a ridiculous notion: “I keep wondering if there isn’t a figure in history for whom the life of Joseph was a mythical prototype, allowing us to detect the phantasy of Joseph as the secret daemonic motor behind the scenes of his complex life? I am thinking of Napoleon I.” He then launched into a bizarre speculation about the name of Napoleon’s wife, slyly changing en route “probably” to “undoubtedly”: “There were a number of things to be said against her, but what probably decided him [to marry her] was that her name was Josephine… . The infatuation for Josephine was undoubtedly brought about by the name.” He then recalled that he’d previously subjected his trapped victim to this fantasy: “My daughter reminds me that I already divulged to you this interpretation of the daemonic after you read your essay here.” Poor Mann, too polite to object, had to hear this speculation twice.
The patrician Mann, responding to Freud’s letter the following month, quite uncharacteristically continued to bow down before him: “How vividly your letter has recalled to me the afternoon with you, which belongs among the finest memories of my life, when I had the privilege of reading my festival lecture to you.” Ignoring Freud’s repetition of his Napoleon conceit, he continued his flattery: “this letter is a stirring example of your genius, your incredible perspicacity in matters of the unconscious psychic life and the effects produced from its depths, and I take pride in being the recipient.” Though Freud’s 80th birthday jubilatio required undiminished praise, these words—usually reserved for Mann himself—seem insincere and excessive. He did not kowtow in this way to his older brother Heinrich and to such towering friends as Gerhart Hauptmann and Albert Einstein.
Mann also put the icing on the cake in 1936. Incited by Freud’s follower Princess Marie Bonaparte (who’d inspired Freud’s free association about her distinguished ancestor) Mann unsuccessfully recommended Freud for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Since Freud had an elegant style and influential ideas, this was not a far-fetched possibility. The historian Theodor Mommsen in 1902 and the philosopher Henri Bergson in 1907 had won the prize; and the non-creative prose writers Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill and Svetlana Alexievich would later win it.
Mann’s four Joseph and His Brothers novels (1933-43) and Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (1939) were both completed during their exile from Hitler’s regime. In a letter to Freud in December 1936, Mann wrote that he’d been depressed by recent events. His days were clouded by the retraction of his honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn and “by the Berlin decree pronouncing me an outcast” and depriving him of German citizenship. In “The Theme of the Joseph Novels” Mann observed that the choice of an Old Testament subject was certainly not accidental. It was written during “the growing vulgar anti-semitism which is an essential part of the Fascist mob-myth.” Both Mann and Freud did prodigious research and must have read some of the same books on ancient religion, history and archeology. Mann made two trips to Egypt. Freud, who had a superb collection of Middle Eastern artifacts, longed to go there but was prevented from traveling by old age and illness.
In Mann’s novel, based on the Bible story and influenced by Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Joseph has amazing premonitions and clairvoyant power, and reveals that the dreams of Potiphar’s wife express her sexual wish-fulfillment. After Joseph demonstrates his ability to interpret dreams and divine the future, he is released from prison and brought to Pharaoh. Recreating Genesis 41, Mann has Pharaoh gratefully declare: “ ‘My king-dreams are now interpreted to me… . Now, thanks to this prophetic youth, I know the truth… . My majesty has been shown that seven fat years will come in all Egypt and after that seven years of dearth, such that one will quite forget the previous plenty, and famine will consume the land.’ ”
In July 1936, a month after Mann’s visit to Grinzing, Arnold Zweig eagerly asked Freud about Mann’s Young Joseph, the second novel in his tetralogy: “What do you think of his Joseph novel? What is your opinion of it as a whole and in parts, as to subject-matter, style and form?” Unfortunately Freud, who may not have read the novel or did not want to disturb the ballet of flattery by expressing a negative opinion, did not answer.
Freud’s last book, Moses and Monotheism (1939), concerns the origins of the Jewish religion. His convoluted and unconvincing argument (defended, of course by the faithful Ernest Jones) stated that Moses was not a Jewish patriarch, but an Egyptian who led a small band of Jewish rebels out of Egypt during a civil war. These people killed Moses and their original sin has haunted the tribe of Israel since then. Freud thought the “embryonic experience of the race, the influence of the man Moses and the exodus from Egypt conditioned the entire further development [of the Jews] up to the present day.” Contemporary Jewish readers, however, were not at all pleased by Freud’s denigration of their great hero into an Egyptian nobody.
Freud reinterpreted the story of Moses; Mann dramatically retold it after Freud’s death, so he would not compete with or contradict the master. In Mann’s The Tables of the Law (1943) Moses is a heroic Jewish leader, not an Egyptian rebel. Mann related the early life of Moses, his preparations for leading his people out of Egypt, the exodus itself and his engraving of the stone tablets of the law at Sinai. Mann wrote that when Moses broke the tablets before the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:19, “He lifted high one of the tables of the law in his mighty arms and smashed it down upon the ridiculous animal until it buckled at the knees; struck again and again with such fury that the tablet itself flew into pieces.”
The most traumatic personal parallel between Freud and Mann was their attempt to hide their most intimate secrets, which during the Nazi period were in danger of being publicly exposed. Luckily, the potentially damaging papers were rescued by Mann’s son and one of Freud’s disciples. When Mann went into exile after Hitler took power in January 1933, he asked his son Golo to go to his house in Munich, pack his diaries in a suitcase and send them to him in Switzerland. He then warned Golo: “I am counting on you to be discreet and not read any of these things!” Golo naively handed the suitcase over to their chauffeur, who offered to take it to the train station but gave it instead to the Gestapo. Fearing the worst about his homosexual revelations and early love for Paul Ehrenberg, Mann exclaimed that the Nazis would publish excerpts in their newspaper: “they will ruin everything, they will ruin me. My life will never be right again… . My fears now revolve first and foremost almost exclusively about this threat to my life’s secrets. They are deeply serious. The consequences could be terrible, even fatal.”
The Diary recorded that in May 1918, when Klaus was eleven years old and struggling with the changes of puberty, Mann seemed to possess a precious in-house Tadzio who matched Aschenbach’s idealized adolescent in Death in Venice. Mann rapturously wrote, “I am really pleased to have such a beautiful boy as a son. . . . His naked bronzed body left me unsettled.” Two years later, from May to July 1920, Mann revealed his forbidden feelings for Klaus. The normally undemonstrative Mann described using physical gestures and soothing words about platonic man-to-man love to justify his own rash behavior and persuade his son to accept it: “I made Klaus aware of my inclination with my caresses and by persuading him to be of good cheer.” Using Klaus’s nickname Mann blissfully wrote, “Eissi at the moment enchants me.” Intruding on Klaus when he was naked and washing himself, he noted in an astonishing entry, “Am enraptured with Eissi: frighteningly handsome in the bath. Find it very natural that I should be in love with my son… . I came upon Eissi totally nude and up to some [masturbation] nonsense in Golo’s bed. Deeply struck by his radiant adolescent body, overwhelming.”
In the end, Mann’s lawyer managed to recover the diaries that expressed his incestuous desires; they were finally published in 1977-80. When Golo read them, he learned that the homosexual attraction and longing described in Mann’s fiction were based on his secret feelings. Mann’s three homosexual children—Golo, Erika and Klaus—had much more in common with their father than they had ever realized.
Freud’s closest friend from 1887 to 1904 was Wilhelm Fliess, a German-Jewish doctor, two years younger than he, who practiced in Berlin. Freud’s unusually frank letters to Fliess—when he was analyzing himself and trying to formulate his pioneering ideas—contained grave indiscretions, mentioned his cocaine addiction and revealed his innermost thoughts. When Fliess told Freud that some of his ideas “smacked of magic, not science,” their friendship was traumatically ruptured.
A review of Freud’s letters to Fliess in the New York Times of March 17, 1985 said that Freud “held nothing back from Fliess, sharing with him fears so deep he would not tell them to his wife, confessing to Fliess his weaknesses, sexual frustrations, anxieties and hatreds… . The man revealed in them is as unabashedly neurotic as he is brilliant.” Fliess’ weird theories about the effect of rhythmical cycles on daily lives and his far-fetched connection between the nose and the genitals have been completely discredited. Frederick Crews declares that “Freud had embraced all of Fliess’ ideas without showing even a flicker of critical judgment. Some of those ideas [later] struck Anna Freud and her colleagues as ridiculous… . His letters to Fliess suggested a mind in turmoil, lurching among half-articulated brainstorms without engagement in consecutive reasoning.”
In December 1936—the year of Mann’s second essay and his two congenial visits to Freud—Marie Bonaparte announced that she had purchased the 250 letters from Freud to Fliess, from the collector who’d bought them from Fliess’ widow, for $480. Grateful and relieved, Freud poured out his feelings to Marie in two letters of January 1937:
Our correspondence was of the most intimate nature, as you can surmise. It would have been most painful to have it fall into the hands of strangers. It is therefore an extraordinary labor of love that you have gotten hold of them and removed them from danger… . They indicate all the presentiments and blind alleys of the budding psychoanalysis, and are also quite personal in this case [his self-analysis]. There are also not a few mentions of intimate processes and relationships; things like the reproaches through which the friendship went to pieces are especially dis-tressing in retrospect.
When Marie told Freud that she had the letters, he asked her (as Mann had asked Golo) not to read them. He offered to pay half the sale price, but she feared he would destroy them and refused payment. They are now with Marie’s papers in the Library of Congress.
Freud expressed his deepest feelings about love and death in a cathartic letter to Hungarian medical-psychoanalytic friends on June 11, 1923. His favorite grandson, Heinele Halberstadt (1918-1923) orphaned and in delicate health, had been taken from his aunt and uncle in Hamburg, and sent to Vienna to be cared for by Freud. He described the child’s agonizing death:
He was indeed an enchanting little fellow, and I myself was aware of never having loved a human being, certainly never a child, so much… . This child fell ill again two weeks ago, temperature between 102 and 104, headaches, no clear local symptoms, for a long time no diagnosis, and finally the slow but sure realisation that he has a miliary [widespread] tuberculosis, in fact that the child is lost. He is now lying in a coma with paresis [paralysis]… . I find this loss very hard to bear. I don’t think I have ever experienced such grief; perhaps my own sickness contributes to the shock.
Schur added, “afterward he remarked repeatedly that this event had killed something in him, so that he was never able to form new attachments” for fear of suffering another devastating loss. Freud’s emotional pain was intensified by the first symptoms of the cigar-induced cancer of the jaw that would kill him in September 1939. He thought he’d been punished for loving the boy too much, and felt guilty, as a grandfather and doctor, that he’d not been able to protect and save him. He must have bitterly reflected that an old and sick man like himself could live while the young and promising child had to die.
In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud wrote that “one day someone will venture to embark upon a pathology of cultural communities,” and Mann did this in his allegory of Nazism in Doctor Faustus(1947). Freud’s letter about the death of his grandson from tuberculosis in June 1923 has an extraordinary resemblance to Mann’s description in that novel of Nepo’s death from spinal meningitis five years later in June 1928. Mann fully dramatizes the episode that Freud briefly recounts. He portrays Nepo’s appearance, speech and protracted death in ghastly clinical detail. As with Freud’s favorite grandson, the enchanting and angelic five-year-old is sent to his relative, his Uncle Adrian Leverkühn, in order to improve his frail health, but instead suffers an agonizing death.
An “exceptionally beloved child,” like the biblical Joseph, Nepo gives the impression of a fairy princeling, “of a guest from a finer, tinier sphere.” Adrian is profoundly touched by “the sweet depths of that azure upturned smile” and by his delightful speech: “Well, you are glad I did come, yes?” Nepo’s spinal meningitis resembles Adrian’s cerebral meningitis, and Adrian’s cold look glazes the clear blue eyes of Nepo, who cannot bear light and sound and retreats into a darkened room. These warning symptoms are followed by fever, vomiting, skull-splitting head-aches, violent convulsions, paralysis of the eye muscles, rigidity of the neck and “twenty-two hours of shrieking, writhing torture”—then by a coma and a gnashing of teeth. Mann’s narrator concludes, “that strangely seraphic little being was taken from this earth … in the harshest, the most incomprehensible cruelty I have ever witnessed” and mourns “the almost complete powerlessness of medical science in the face of this fatal onslaught.”
Like Freud, Adrian has never loved anyone so much and never experienced such grief. Nepo’s death has also killed a precious feeling inside him and he could never love anyone again. Adrian had agreed, in his Faustian pact with the devil which gave him twenty-four years of musical genius, that he would never form a human attachment or love any human being. So the devil punishes him for loving Nepo and he feels guilty about causing the child’s death. It’s unlikely that Mann ever read Freud’s letter of June 1923. The character of Nepo was based on his own favorite grandson, Frido Mann, who did not suffer and die in real life, and the fictional description of his death horrified the boy’s parents. Mann’s genius as a writer enabled him—in one of the most powerful scenes he ever wrote—to dramatize the child’s illness and death as if he himself, like Freud, had actually experienced them.
The meetings of Mann and Freud, during their political exile and personal danger, created one of the great intellectual and emotional friend-ships of the 1930s. Mann suppressed his doubts about Freud’s fantastic speculations on Napoleon and Moses, abandoned his characteristic irony and remained extremely reverential to the older man. Freud graciously welcomed Mann’s heartfelt tributes and admired the inherent nobility of the North German literary genius. Most significantly, Mann’s adoption of Freud’s concepts of sexual repression and instinctual triumphs enabled him to hide the fictional expression of his own homoerotic feelings. Mann’s repressed homosexuality led not to neurosis and death, but to his greatest work: his portrayal of the secret emotions of Tonio and Hans Hansen in “Tonio Kröger,” Aschenbach and Tadzio in Death in Venice, Castorp and Pribislav Hippe in The Magic Mountain, Cipolla and Mario in “Mario and the Magician,” Adrian and Rudi Schwerdtfeger in Doctor Faustus.