My Friend Tonio Kröger

Recently, I ran into an old friend, Tonio Kröger. “Tonio Kröger” is the name of a short novel by Thomas Mann. Tonio’s father is a Lübeck patrician and the essence of North German purpose and propriety. Tonio’s mother is a southern dark-eyed beauty; she is passionate, musical, impulsive, and vague. She takes no positions on anything.

Tonio’s name comes from one of her brothers and is not northern and German enough. Tonio grows up learning how to see what is behind everything. He becomes a writer, a poet – and is therefore forever set apart from the blond, blue-eyed beautiful people who live robust lives of gain and satisfaction.

He wants his boyhood friend Hans Hansen to value him above all others. He is in love with Ingeborg Holm, who is more drawn to Hans Hansen. They – Hans and Ingeborg – are put off by Tonio’s brooding, sensitivity, his literary nature. Tonio becomes a sought-after writer. He scorns those who find themselves changed by his writing. He holds a long soliloquy in front of his Russian painter friend Lisaweta Iwanowna, who serves him coffee while he complains about not being one of those he wishes would love him – the blond and blue-eyed, who are popular and take riding lessons.

Lisaweta says, Tonio, I have listened to you go on and on, and now I am going to tell you what you are. I imagine her putting her hand lovingly on his shoulder. Du bist ein verirrter Bürger, she says. You are a member of the bourgeoisie who has gone astray. That is all she says, but the meaning is clear. He is a bourgeois, a city dweller, who has somehow fallen in among painters, writers, and musicians – at his own peril.

Lisaweta is a kind woman, a hard-working artist, and a friend. Tonio picks up his hat and leaves, unable to accept either intimacy or ironic truth. It is a great moment in modern German literature – Mann telling the truth to one of his own creations. A truth which ricochets in our direction. It goes to the question which secretly concerns most of us: To what extent are we artists? In which direction do we lean more – metaphorically – toward our orderly, somewhat melancholy patrician father, or more toward our passionate and beautiful southern mother? To what extent are we able to integrate both parts and achieve the creative tension between practiced persistence and dreamy passion?

Goethe speaks about true freedom existing only within a limiting structure. Nietzsche designates the two sides as the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Lisaweta describes it as der verirrte Bürger. The bourgeois gone astray, but still bourgeois. Writing fiction may require the unfettered inner voice – the storyteller – and the external sober adherence to clear grammar, economy of expression, cadence, and sound. The storyteller speaks from internal images, of things seen and actions taken. A painter uses years of learned technique to  reproduce a moment of recognition, to such an extent that the viewer of his art believes that he or she has glimpsed something known to be true and striking.

Goethe criticized the German Romantics for their lack of order and limits, for their adherence to mental suffering and excess. Yet, some of the German Romantics knew how to remove their protagonists from bourgeois restraints. The hero wandered away from town, skipping out on hard, boring work, and got lost, traveled through strange landscapes, and went through the stages of individuation, die Mutternachtseefahrt, the mother-night-sea journey, which both Jung and Joseph Campbell talk about.

After Lisaweta’s comment, Tonio leaves Munich and takes a trip north. He visits his childhood home, which is now a municipal library. At the hotel, a policeman demands his papers, suspecting him of being a confidence man from the south. It is an old Thomas Mann theme: the similarity between the writer and the criminal, perhaps because they both steal. Tonio carries no papers. In an effort to establish his identity, he takes out a manuscript he is working on. This act only increases the policeman’s suspicion. Still, Tonio manages to cross over to Denmark. He stays in a well-known seaside resort. He walks along the beach. He rejoices in the booming green and white of the sea. He appreciates the northern bourgeois non-writers he finds himself among. His scorn washes away. He is at peace.

A group of tourists arrives. They are boisterous and happy. By stroke of fate – at least so it seems – among them are his childhood loves. Hans Hansen – nearly twenty years later, still wearing his sailor frock and tasseled Imperial sailor’s cap. He is still blond and blue-eyed, still presuming in his rank as handsome and deserving burgher. And there – at least so it seems – is Ingeborg Holm, a little fuller, her bright blue eyes somewhat more squinty, but as healthy and lovely as ever.

From the safety of the dark terrace, Tonio watches them dance. He moves closer and takes a seat. They pass right in front of him, over and over, but they never see him, never recognize him. And therefore, nothing has changed. He loves them anyway but this time feels no pain, no suffering from being rejected. In bed, on his pillow, the boy in him still prays that she will come to him – but she does not. He whispered two names into the pillow,” Thomas Mann writes, “these few chaste, Nordic syllables which were synonymous with what he knew about love, suffering, happiness, life, deep feeling, and home. At the same time, he saw himself eaten up by irony and intellect, laid barren and paralyzed by knowledge…caught halfway between sainthood and rutting…and he sobbed, out of regret and homesickness.”

The next day he writes to Lisaweta Iwanowna. “I stand between two worlds, am at home in neither, and for that reason it is not easy. You painters call me a bourgeois, and the bourgeois are suspicious and want to arrest me…I admire the proud and cold, who venture out on paths toward demonic Beauty and who despise mere common people. But I don’t envy them. For if there is anything that can make a Poet out of a literati like me, it is this bourgeois love in me for what is human, alive, and common. All warmth, all that is good, all humor comes from this…When I write, I hear the sea churning, and I shut my eyes. I look into an unborn, shadowy world, which seeks order and expression, I see what looks like human forms waving at me, asking that I seize them and release them into Story. Tragic and ridiculous figures, or mixtures of both, I am very fond of them. But my deepest and most secret love is reserved for the blond and blue-eyed, the bright and vital ones, who are happy and kind and common.”

Thomas Mann redeems Tonio Kröger. But the question remains: Who will redeem us? To what extent are we the artist of der verwirrte Bürger, el ciudadano extraviado, the bourgeois gone astray? One part parched ordering patrician; one part feminine, fiery, passionate, and suspect. Does our own artistic grace lie somewhere on this continuum? Is that what we are looking for: redemption? I have not had answers to these questions. And that is why I was so happy to run into my old friend Tonio Kröger again, and Thomas Mann’s clear and passionate prose.

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