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In the Shadow of the Progress Narrative: The Problems and Potentials within GLBTQ and Intellectual Biographies

Review of In the Shadow of Magic Mountain: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story, by Andrea Weiss. U. Chicago Press, 2008.

Academics and activists often uncritically venerate the lives of GLBTQ people of the past, omitting their misdeeds and pain. Their intellectual labor erases the harsh realities of past same-sex desire to create undeniably admirable heroes out of complex, non-representational individuals. These works attempt to create a progress narrative in which their particular subjects contribute to the development of sexual minority rights and culture. Past figures serve as temporal stepping-stones to the “better” world we inhabit today. In this process, lives are removed from the context that created, repressed, punished, or tolerated them. Instead writers elevate historical figures to the level of romanticized warriors and lament, “if only they could be alive today.” Andrea Weiss’s biography of Erika and Klaus Mann, the eldest children of Thomas Mann, In the Shadow of Magic Mountain (ISMM) does not wholly conform to GLBTQ studies’ negligent paradigm, but sometimes slips into the generic style, which attempts to rewrite history. Weiss contextualizes the Mann siblings within their economic, cultural, and historical moment allowing each of those factors to play a major role in this intellectual biography. She depicts the lives of the Mann siblings without making them heroes or over-emphasizing their roles in the effort against fascism or their position within the German-exile, intellectual/artistic, or homosexual communities. However, through unneeded commentary, Weiss sometimes contradicts the complex narrative she unfolds.

In the preface, Weiss confesses that the Mann siblings invaded every aspect of her life; all conversations centered on or led to the pair. To her, this is not without reason. She sees the Mann family as leaving behind a legacy of literature too often ignored in the United States. She provides the anecdote that in her countless hours at New York University’s Bobst Library, she was the only person to venture into the shelves dedicated to the Mann family. To remedy this, she invited herself into their “secret world” to rescue them from obscurity by producing the documentary, Escape to Live: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story and the follow-up book ISMM. Perhaps it is the closeness to the Mann siblings that caused Weiss to forget the context of their lives and state, “Born perhaps fifty years too early, Erika and Klaus Mann were so modern in their outlook and style that they strike a familiar chord with us today” (vii). This statement clashes with most of the book, which details how the siblings were in fact very much of their time.

In Feeling Backward, Heather Love critiques gay and lesbian scholars and queer theorists’ obscene tradition of rewriting or not acknowledging the lives of tragic sexual minorities. The lives of past GLBTQ people are simplified and polished, removing everything questionable, for easy consumption. Writers overemphasize accomplishments while erasing their tragedies and the discrimination and violence they faced. Building a utopian theory would be a more difficult project if academics dealt with the painful reality of same-sex desire. For example, academics forget the public shaming and hard labor that destroyed the body (and may have caused the early death) of Oscar Wilde, while emphasizing his public dandy persona, which seemed impervious to shame and harm (Eribon 176-181). Love writes that more accurate accounts of people’s lives show the implications of having a “disqualified identity” within a particular context and describe how oppression is systemic and continual, not a series of isolated incidents. By ignoring past injuries done to sexual minorities, academics lose accounts of systemic oppression that continue today. Weiss’s commentary briefly lapses into this sentimental and erroneous GLBTQ generic progress narrative cliché. She forgets the context, which made their unconventional lives possible. However she then provides a narrative with numerous details and contexts, which counteract her erroneous statements.

Weiss constructs a web of difficulties, joys, and relations within the lives of Erika and Klaus and, through this, presents insight into the lives of those able to claim a gay or bisexual identity between the World Wars in Germany. Erika and Klaus were eight and seven when World War I began. Their father’s emotional distance and his fame and wealth, which kept neighbors in awe instead of congenial, provided them with ample free time. Within this isolation, the two distanced themselves from their four younger siblings by creating a fantasy world with elaborate insider rules, secret languages, and artistic productions. This early pairing persists throughout most of their lives and continually causes rumors of incest, which Weiss never completely confirms or denies. Instead, she writes, “one could call [them] ‘emotionally incestuous’” (51). Weiss accuses the Mann siblings of a deviance beyond their same-sex attraction but makes the subject of the sentence “one,” which removes herself from the guilt of continuing an unfounded rumor. She could have broached the subject without the accusatory statement that removes the siblings from their relational context and labels them as perverts. Instead, she judges the morality of their relationship.

Their closeness, whether healthy or unhealthy, continued, but the isolation ended when they left their childhood home outside of Munich for Berlin. Here they partook in a growing youth movement created around outrage at Germany and the Kaiser’s actions during WWI. The movement rejected traditional Germanic values and norms, including sexual and gender conventions, as a reaction to their country’s disgraceful acts. Within the climate of the Weimar Republic, the first German democracy, Erika and Klaus found a community in artist groups, including experimental theatre troupes and writing circles, and the emerging gay nightlife. The audacity of being out and public about their homosexualities does not make Erika and Klaus anachronistic, as Weiss writes in the preface. Again, Weiss’s commentary creates a progress narrative where the current is always better than the past. She imagines that the siblings would be happier in the more accepting now, as if their sexual preferences were the only dimension of their lives and that Berlin did not foster such communities. In this commentary, Weiss erases the culture of Berlin during a specific time when “homosexuality went from perverse to chic” (38). It was during this experience that Klaus wrote his first novel, The Pious Dance, the first unapologetic “coming out” novel; the main character was modeled after Klaus. The habit of modeling fictional characters after himself and his friends and family continued throughout his life and is a trait he shares with his father.

Weiss’s account of the siblings’ lives provides insight into a privileged group of homosexuals, whose activities and relations depict a version of urban and intellectual homosexuality that lingers today, at least in media depictions. Berlin’s gay nightlife gave safe spaces to meet other homosexuals interested in the arts. These relations sparked a creative output in both Mann siblings and helped them join a larger European network of intellectual and artistic homosexuals who aided each other when the persecution of homosexuals in Germany escalated during the National Socialist Party’s rise to power. This network facilitated the marriages of German homosexuals to non-German homosexuals of the opposite sex, providing a new nationality and the ability to permanently flee Germany without the fear of repatriation. A community based on shared sexual identities allowed a strategy for survival to emerge. When Erika asked English author Christopher Isherwood to marry her, he declined for fear that marrying a Mann would draw attention to his boyfriend, a German citizen avoiding conscription. Instead, Isherwood asked English poet and fellow homosexual W. H. Auden through telegram if he would marry Erika Mann, whom he had never met. Auden responded, “Delighted” (113-4).

This new community remedied the isolation of the Mann’s childhood, but created a new sense of isolation for Klaus. Despite his “progressive” attitude, Klaus longed for normalcy, stability, and traditionalism in another man, while he himself was rather turbulent, often moving from city to city and taking massive amounts of drugs. This contradiction between his desire and action caused distress, which along with his rampant drug use, the loss of friends through death and distance, and his sister’s growing closeness with their father (a shift in family dynamics that Weiss calls “fatal”(205)), enhanced Klaus’s always-present death wish. The only thing keeping Klaus alive was his desire not to die “the son of Thomas Mann.” To do this he needed to create great literature that would gain him recognition. Weiss describes the impact of being Thomas’s children as both a boon and a curse. Klaus resented being compared to him, but throughout his career used his father’s fame to obtain work and get published. This caused further distress for the melancholic Klaus. Weiss claims that Klaus’s self-loathing did not stem from his homosexuality; it came from everything else (122). Whether this is true or just an attempt to not turn Klaus into a tragic queer figure is unclear.

As Weiss illustrates, German culture and world events were not a facile backdrop that never affected the Mann siblings; the happenings of the nation shaped and severely altered the lives of the Mann family. Weiss’s narrative documents a segment of Germany’s intellectuals from the onset of World War I, through the years of Germany’s Weimer Republic, to the rise of fascism and subsequent exile. The nation’s prominence in the narrative allows the importance of this book to expand beyond the lives of two eccentrics and to the role intellectuals within the nation. The reactions of Erika (sympathetic, but inactive), Thomas (complacent), and Klaus (outraged) to the Nazi’s growing influence within democratic Germany parallels US intellectuals’ reactions to the increased militarization and the “War on Terrorism.” Erika refused to interfere on the grounds that artists have no business interfering in national politics; this was best left to politicians and business leaders. Her opinion changed when during a poetry reading a fascist group burst into the auditorium and almost killed her. She refused to act upon her convictions right away, hoping that the foolish Nazis would dissipate, but later began to write, produce, and star in a popular anti-Nazi cabaret show, The Peppermill. Thomas refused to make any statement against and even supported the National Socialist Party for fear that his reputation, as one of Germany’s preeminent authors, would be tarnished. Thomas always valued prestige, which is one reason he repressed his homosexual desires and married Katia, Erika and Klaus’s mother. Klaus opposed fascism from the beginning and wrote essays and stories encouraging people to defend democratic ideals. As an intellectual, he thought it was his duty to defend his nation and culture from destructive forces. While in exile, Klaus attempted and achieved momentary successes in creating a German exile literary front against Nazism. This process caused lapses into depression and frustration with the uselessness of his prose in stopping Hitler. This perceived failure caused Klaus anger, which he directed not solely at Hitler, but also at the German people for not fighting against Nazism. Through these reactions, Weiss explores the frustrating, but important, work of writers, intellectuals, and artists in standing up against the wrongs their nation commits and how silence does not save lives or cause immunity. Erika and Klaus’s efforts did aid anti-Nazi sentiment. Thomas Mann’s silence did not stop the entire Mann family from being placed on Goebbels’s list of traitors to the nation.

Throughout the rise and fall of Nazism, Klaus and Erika clung to their pacifist ideals. Erika stated, “War was shameful; war was impossible” (78). They maintained their labels as pacifists despite both engaging with the US public in order to coax them into declaring war on Germany, Erika becoming a British war correspondent, and Klaus becoming a US Army soldier. After presenting this information, Weiss details an argument between Isherwood and Klaus over Isherwood’s refusal to publicly support US involvement in Europe. She writes, “Klaus maintained that he too was a pacifist; certainly he ‘couldn’t possibly ever kill anyone personally. But pacifism couldn’t possibly be applied to every case; if you let the Nazis kill everyone, you allowed civilization to be destroyed’” (163). Weiss never engages with the contradictory nature of clinging to pacifism while training to be a soldier and supporting the military apparatus. Instead, she, like the Mann siblings, repeatedly states that they are pacifists, despite being active in a war: “But despite his uniform and the military ideology behind it, Klaus remained an intellectual pacifist throughout…” (197). Weiss takes the Mann siblings words over their actions and never questions, justifies, or engages with the contradiction. The point is not that Weiss should label the Mann siblings as hypocrites. Instead it reveals a symptom of both GLBQ and intellectual biography writers, in that they refuse to critically engage with their subjects.  The validity of her work is put into question when she once again does not maintain a critical distance.

After the defeat of the Axis powers, Klaus sunk into depression. As his entire life was devoted to the anti-Nazi cause, he lost his motivation. At the same time, he stopped idealizing the US when the government dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Klaus saw the US as having too much power now and using it uncivilly. Erika, whose main income source was lecturing against the Nazis, was out of a job and became the caretaker and manager of her father. Both lost their way and produced little after the war. Klaus wandered around Europe, stopping in Cannes where he ended his life at the age of forty-two. Erika lived twenty years after Klaus’s death, but her mind and body were weakened considerably. Her remaining years were devoted to gaining US citizenship, which McCarthy era politics made impossible, causing her and her parents moved to Switzerland. While there, she pursued getting Thomas and Klaus’s work republished. She died in 1969. Weiss comments in highly sentimental terms, “It was only a matter of her body catching up with her soul…. [she] already died twenty years earlier” (260).

Weiss states that a biography of one of the eldest Mann siblings would be an incomplete story; she sees them as a “couple.” Their stories and their lives depend on one another. I cannot help but agree with Weiss; by doing a biography of “the couple,” Weiss avoids making one sibling rise above their context. This perspective continues throughout the book and makes for an interesting account of an era. The main detractions occur when Weiss provides superfluous commentary, where she idealizes, decontextualizes, or morally judges the siblings. Her identification with them and her desire to create a progress narrative interfere with the incredible amount of research and writing that she completed. But while Weiss’s words sometimes contradict the provided biographical details, her work does reveal and allow reflection on the interesting lives of two minor players in a time of global upheaval.

Works Cited

Eribon, Didier. Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. Duke University Press, 2004.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Michael J. Lecker is a Cultural Studies Ph.D. student at George Mason University.

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