The Artist’s Struggle in the Work of Thomas Mann

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

In his works “Tonio Krager,” “Death in Venice,” and “Tristan,” Thomas Mann discusses the artist’s struggle in terms of who he is, who he should be, and who he will be. In the three works, the artistic protagonists struggle with either a metaphorical or physical sickness, stemming mainly from their inability to reconcile the two polarities with which every artist struggles. Attempting to overcome these “sicknesses,” the artists react to their problems differently, and in each of their reactions one can see Mann’s assertion of what can become of an artist. In order to overcome his difficulty, Tonio Krager attempts to face his problems head-on, thereby moving towards eliminating them. Gustave von Aschenbach, however, runs from his metaphoric sickness to its polar opposite, which makes him even sicker. Finally, Deltev Spinell runs away from his issues, but towards nothing, which causes him to remain perpetually sick.

In all three works, the artist seeks to find a medium between the two polarities that drive him. Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory on Greek tragedy influences Mann’s view of this artist, who must aim to maintain balance between the Dionysian, or passionate and intoxicating forces, and the Apollonian, or the rational and detached forces. In “Tonio Krager,” Mann portrays these clashing opposites through Tonio’s parents-his southern, “dark, fiery mother”  and his northern, “reflective, puritanically correct”  father. Working as a writer in Munich, Tonio painfully tries to reconcile his “icy intellect and scorching sense” , and finds himself stuck as a “literary man” who stands removed from the world-only able to “label it and express it and discuss it and polish it off” . In order to face these influences of the Apollonian and reconcile them with his passion, Tonio decides to return to his childhood home.

Directly confronting his problems by returning to his northern roots, Tonio sees that he is neither entirely comfortable with the artists who call him “bourgeois” , or the bourgeois who almost arrest him. In fact, Tonio will never find himself amongst the fair-haired blue-eyed of the world, but as a passionate observer who can reconcile his opposing forces by seeking out his “bourgeois love of the human, the living and the usual” . Thus, Tonio realizes he may never find the perfect balance between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, or between his mother and father, but to apply both of these forces towards creating art, he can settle them in his work.

In “Death in Venice,” Gustave von Aschenbach has similar difficulties balancing the Dionysian and Apollonian, for he is “painfully conscientious” , without even traces of the Dionysian. An utter perfectionist who champions will over nature, Aschenbach’s strictness with his art, in which his style is “fixed and exemplary”  is described as a malady-an inability to give into any indulgences and stray from his carefully plotted path. When Aschenbach visits Venice, he is no longer able to control his dormant Dionysian side, which takes over. He becomes reckless in his pursuit of Tadzio, and drinks contaminated water, eats possibly poisonous strawberries, and becomes the very image of death he had once condemned. Instead of balancing the Dionysian and Apollonian, Aschenbach runs away from the Apollonian-the aspect of himself he had known to this point, and behaves only passionately, rejecting any sort of balance between the two. Through Aschenbach’s stay in Venice, which leads to his demise, Mann depicts the dangers of a heavy imbalance of the Dionysian and Apollonian.

In “Tristan,” the writer Detlev Spinell surrounds himself with the sick, and claims to only reside at Einfried to have himself “electrified a bit,” admitting he enjoys it there because “it is a feeling for style” (. That Spinell remains in a house of sick when he is physically healthy is significant, as it shows that, like Aschenbach, he is detached and hides from the world-unable to enjoy life or embrace even a trace of the Dionysian. However, unlike Aschenbach who travels to Venice where he replaces the Apollonian with the Dionysian, by eliminating entirely his detached and intellectual side, Spinell runs away from the Apollonian but towards nothing. With Gabriele Kerjahn’s death, instead of having one passionate, highly emotional moment, Detlev Spinell “went away across the gravel…his gait was the hesitating gait of one who would disguise the fact that, inwardly, he is running away” . Without letting even a hint of the Dionysian into his life, Spinell is doomed to remain an invalid in Einfried forever, as he simply runs away from the Apollonian without rejecting it, but towards no balance with the Dionysian.

In all three works, Thomas Mann depicts detached observers whose inner struggles hinder their ability to fully live life, and all of whom travel somewhere to deal with these issues. Mann shows that the ultimate goal for these artists should be to balance out the Dionysian and Apollonian, like Tonio Krager does, which would lead to a healthy life and fruitful career. Tonio Krager, however, is the only one who is able to achieve this balance, as he alone confronts his difficulties, finding that the two polarities, which will always remain in conflict, can be reconciled by applying them and using them to create art. Gustave von Aschenbach and Detlev Spinell, however, run from their problems but towards no better solution, thereby causing them to remain “sick.”

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