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Fighting Incompleteness

Philip Kitcher interviewed by David Auerbach.

Philip Kitcher has authored numerous works in the philosophy of science such as The Nature of Mathematical Knowledge (1983), The Advancement of Science (1993), In Mendel’s Mirror (2003), and Science in a Democratic Society (2013), he has more recently focused on what he terms a “pragmatic naturalism” in such works as The Ethical Project (2011) and Preludes to Pragmatism (2012). Yet his new book Deaths in Venice shows him in addition to be an enthusiastic reader of literature and music as philosophy, searching for how the creative arts can illuminate life and truth in ways that purely expository philosophy cannot.

A long-time aficionado of modernism in general and James Joyce in particular, he wrote Joyce’s Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegans Wake (2007), an accessible and personal examination of Joyce’s daunting masterwork.  He collaborated with prominent Nietzsche scholar Richard Schacht on Finding an Ending: Reflections on Wagner’s Ring (2004). Deaths in Venice is a penetrating examination of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice that examines the novella philosophically, historically, and biographically, drawing connections to Plato through to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and in particular to the music of Gustav Mahler and Benjamin Britten.

I spoke with Kitcher about how he came to the project and some of the questions and dilemmas his book left with me.

Literature as Philosophy

3:AM: What drew you to Death in Venice as a starting point? Did you always know that you would end by discussing Mahler’s work, via Britten and Visconti’s adaptations of Death in Venice?

Kitcher: Sometime during the 1990s, when I was teaching philosophy at UCSD, my friend, colleague, and music teacher, Carol Plantamura, discussed the possibility of teaching a course together looking at ways in which various literary works (plays, stories, novels) had been treated as operas, and how different themes emerged in the opera and in its original.  One of the pairings we planned to use was Mann’s great novella and Britten’s opera.  Unfortunately, the course was never taught, but the idea remained with me.  In the past decade, as I read Mann in German for the first time, the full achievement – both literary and philosophical – of Death in Venice struck me forcefully, so that, when I was invited to give the Schoff Lectures at Columbia, the opportunity to reflect on the contrasts between novella and opera seemed irresistible.

But it turned out rather differently from the way I’d anticipated.  First, my frame of reference for the Britten opera shifted.  I’d always thought of Britten’s approach in Death in Venice as another exploration of the plight of the individual whose aspirations are at odds with those of the surrounding community: his last opera returning to the themes of Peter Grimes.  As I read and listened and thought, however, Billy Budd came to seem a more appropriate foil for Death in Venice.

Second, and more importantly, I felt I should also contrast Visconti’s treatment of the novella – usually damned by Mann fans (who typically respect Britten’s more “faithful” adaptation).  The Visconti film does many quite wonderful things, although there are good reasons for the condemnation.  Presenting Aschenbach as a composer – based on Mahler – leads to some dreadful scenes (especially those in which Aschenbach is berated by his student), and it surely distorts the character Mann created.  Yet, we know that Mann’s novella was based on a holiday in Venice he took with his wife and brother, and that while he was there he followed the reports in the German newspapers, describing the dying Mahler’s progress as he returned from New York to Vienna.  We know that he gave Aschenbach Mahler’s first name, and also his facial features.  So Visconti picks up on something interesting.  That led me to think about ways of developing further the Aschenbach-Mahler connection.  Using the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth is one of the touches of pure genius in Visconti’s film (even though Mahlerians complain very loudly that the piece has been ruined), since it corresponds perfectly to Aschenbach’s yearnings and to his circling walks around Venice.  Beyond that, though, I found a deep kinship between Mahler’s recurrent attempts to confront all sides of life and to affirm himself in the face of his own finitude, and Aschenbach’s dedication to persevere in the literary evocation of beauty.  Exploring this kinship led me to reflect on many of Mahler’s songs and symphonies – and particularly his great masterpiece, Das Lied von der Erde.  The end result was a way of reading Mann that I hadn’t originally anticipated at all.

So, the short answer: no, I didn’t know that Mahler would come to play so large a role, nor that music and literature and philosophy can interinanimate one another in the way I’ve come to think they do in this case.

3:AM: I read Deaths in Venice as a firm work of literary criticism rather than strict philosophy. You write that your aim is “not to convince readers of particular theses but to provide materials through which they can transcend what I have written.” To what extent did you find philosophy strictu sensu informing your writing of Deaths in Venice?

Kitcher: I intend Deaths in Venice to contribute both to literary criticism and to philosophy.  But it’s not “strict philosophy” in the sense of arguing for specific theses.  As I remark, there’s a style of philosophy – present in writers from Plato to Rawls – that invites readers to consider a certain class of phenomena in a new way.  In the book, I associate this, in particular, with my good friend, the eminent  philosopher of science, Nancy Cartwright, who practices it extremely skilfully.

I would like to undermine the stereotype of “strict philosophy.”  J.L. Austin remarked that, when philosophy is done well, it’s all over by the bottom of the first page.  I take him to have meant that the real work comes in setting up the problem with which you are dealing, and thus getting your reader to take particular things for granted.  Many of the greatest works of philosophy seem to me to be valuable not because of their arguments, but because they offer us perspectives that open up new possibilities.  They show us how we might start in different places, and not buy into the assumptions tacitly made on the first pages of the philosophical works that have influenced us.

Mann’s novella does that too.  Mann was profoundly influenced by two philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who returned to the most ancient of all philosophical questions – “How to live?” – and whose writings offered novel perspectives for considering that question (much more perspective-offering than rigorous argument!)  In working towards ways of reading Mann, so that his own advances in suggesting new perspectives will become more vivid, I do some fairly standard philosophical analysis of ideas in Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.  In elaborating how “philosophy by showing” works, and in defending the idea that literature and music can contribute to philosophical “showing”, I am also doing something more standardly philosophical.  But I view most of the book as an interweaving of philosophy and literary criticism.  If that entails a broadening of a standard idea of philosophy, it’s a broadening I’d like to see happen.

3:AM: You look at Death in Venice from many angles: through Mann’s own biography, through Mann’s influences, through the earlier German writer Graf Platen, through the work’s later adaptations, and ultimately as a case study of how to conceive of life. Do you have a particular theoretical or methodological approach to writing about literature? Which past works of literary criticism have been most inspirational to you?

Kitcher: I’m a pluralist about perspectives on literature.  There seem to me to be all sorts of illuminating ways of responding to major literary works, some of them paying considerable attention to context, others applying various theoretical ideas, yet others focusing on details of language, or linking the work to the author’s life, or connecting it with other works.  Part of the point of my book – signaled in my title – is to celebrate this plurality.  Hence the plurals: “Deaths”, “Cases.”

Mann is widely recognized as a master of irony and ambiguity, yet it’s remarkable how quickly people foreclose options he carefully leaves open.   Lots of readers – including eminent critics – jump to conclusions: that Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy is a central background text, that Aschenbach is an inferior writer, that he’s never been attracted by pubescent male beauty before, that he dies of cholera.  I try to displace each of these bits of conventional wisdom, and I do so by employing different methodological approaches.  Look at Mann’s reading habits, his explicit comments on Nietzsche, and his copy of Birth of Tragedy, and it starts to seem doubtful that this work of Nietzsche’s played much role in the gestation of the novella.  Consider the different narrative styles within the story, and the glee with which the “moralistic narrator” celebrates Aschenbach’s fall – maybe, then, this is a hostile verdict and the international fame is warranted after all (given that Mann modeled his protagonist so closely on himself, it would be quite odd if he had intended Aschenbach’s literary inferiority to be a fixed part of the interpretation).  Think about Mann’s own daily routine (ascribed to Aschenbach), read the extant diaries and the letters in which he discusses the novella’s themes, and it won’t be so obvious that the attraction to Tadzio is completely unprecedented; it also won’t be obvious that what Aschenbach wants is full sexual contact.  Read Mann’s notes, which contain precise accounts of cholera and its symptoms, and observe how careful he is throughout his fiction in getting medical details straight – then you might begin to wonder whether cholera is the only candidate for the cause of Aschenbach’s death.  What results from this, I think, is a deeper appreciation of Mann’s brilliance in keeping so many possibilities in play.  The ambiguity is even more artful than people have realized.

So my methodological approach is to draw on many different features in highlighting different facets of the novella (and the opera and the film).   I use biography, I use literary connections (as with Platen – this seems to me extremely helpful for appreciating the nuances of Mann’s and Aschenbach’s sexuality), I use philosophical sources (but not in the way many Mann critics do, where the philosophical theses and concepts seem to be counters to be pushed around rather than ideas to be probed), and I use juxtapositions with other literary works (including Mann’s other fiction) and with works of music.

Part of this methodological approach is made explicit when I discuss ways in which literature can have philosophical significance.  Literature doesn’t typically argue – and when it does, it’s deadly dull.  But literature can supply the frame within which we come to observe and reason, or it can change our frame in highly significant ways.  That’s one of the achievements I’d claim for Mann, and for Death in Venice.

There are many critics whose work I greatly admire.   Even though I diverge from T.J. Reed in several important ways, I’ve learned greatly from his writings on Mann.  More generally, I’m a fan of Hugh Kenner, Richard Ellman, Lionel Trilling and Frank Kermode.  All these people have taught me how to read – but perhaps, above all literary critics, I’m indebted to Wayne Booth (several people have suggested to me that I’m trying to reinvent “ethical criticism”).

Most influential of all is the philosopher Stanley Cavell, and a younger generation of philosophers who have attempted to follow his pioneering work in thinking about literature philosophically.  Cavell’s essay on King Lear (“The Avoidance of Love”) has impressed me as a very great work, ever since I first read it over forty years ago.  I’ve also learned from Alexander Nehamas, Martha Nussbaum, and Robert Pippin – and Alexander’s discussion of The Magic Mountain, in the first chapter of his book The Art of Living, is the best thing I’ve read on Mann in any language.

3:AM: You explore the idea of a “synthetic complex” as a central element of the power of a great work of art. Could you describe this concept and how it can take stable and unstable forms? I was reminded of Proust and his idea of “divine captives” created by the composer Vintueil and and the painter Elstir.

Kitcher: One of the things I want to do in the book is to explore how philosophy can be done in literature.  I start doing that in the first chapter, by introducing the idea of “philosophy by showing”.  What literature/philosophy shows is how to look at some important facets of life in a new way, thus changing the frame in which subsequent philosophical argument proceeds.

Chapter 3 of the book returns to this proposal by introducing the notion of a synthetic complex.  Here’s what I have in mind.  When we read a literary work (or, in some instances, listen to music) our imagination is stimulated, we feel various emotions, and we arrive at new judgments.  These attitudes are brought into relation with many others, including our standing tendencies to think and feel in particular ways, and we try to fit our psychological capacities and responses together.  The result can be quite new – perhaps a tendency to judge that something we’ve never conceived of is possible, or to feel sympathy for a trait or a type of person whom we’ve regarded with indifference or even hostility.  The amalgam of psychological attitudes we form is the synthetic complex.  It may fall apart quite quickly as further reflection or further experience bears on it, and we may revert to our former judgments, feelings and tendencies.  Sometimes, however, the new synthetic complex proves stable, and even serves as the beginning of a much larger cluster of attitudes that displace some we’ve previously considered to be fixed parts of ourselves.

So this is my attempt to give a preliminary – probably far too crude – account of how philosophy by showing can really teach us.  The attempts we make to work through problems by reasoning always presuppose starting points, and even the most self-critical philosophers adopt some of those starting points simply by picking them up from the social environments in which they grow up.  (There’s no Cartesian point from which each putative belief can be scrutinized before it’s judged to pass muster.)  Philosophy by showing – including philosophy in literature – does truly valuable work in leading us to new perspectives from which our arguments can then begin.  It does so by introducing new synthetic complexes, which we then reflect on from various points of view.  When the complexes survive and grow, that initial showing has been philosophically decisive.

Your question makes the extremely interesting point that this process is also something that can be commented on, not only in the (mildly) analytic philosophical idiom I’ve just employed, but also in a literary work.  Both Proust and Joyce record the ways in which human perspectives can be transformed.  In Portrait, Stephen Dedalus is constantly undergoing epiphanies, but their effects are transitory: the new synthetic complex quickly falls apart.  Proust’s characters, by contrast, often achieve lasting changes of perspective.  The “little theme” from Vinteuil, heard by Swann as emblematic of his love for Odette, remains a point of reference for him, as the character of that love changes and as the love eventually fades.  The moment in which the narrator, reaching for his boots, becomes vividly and lastingly aware of the finality of his grandmother’s death is another such moment.  It would be interesting to explore Proust’s great novel from the perspective of seeing how stable synthetic complexes are formed and modified.

3:AM: You write of the long shadow of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on Mann, yet you find in Mann’s work the possibility of a more fulfilling and less elitist alternative to S and N’s visions–one that has a place for artist and citizen both. To what extent do you think this alternative needs to be presented in literary, rather than in philosophical form?

Kitcher: There are actually two separate issues here.  The first is whether (as ancient philosophers and Nietzsche assume) only the privileged elite can live a worthwhile life.  The second is whether it’s possible to fulfill the roles of both serious artist and upstanding citizen.  It seems to me that philosophy can dissect both questions, by delineating clearly the anatomy of the good life and the structural conditions of the roles.

Mann’s Death in Venice actually contains a snippet of philosophy about the second question, when Aschenbach, collapsed in the plaza, engages in his quasi-Socratic, anti-Socratic, ruminations.  Yet, as I suggest in my own discussion of this episode, Mann invites us to set the attempt to philosophize about his predicament in the context of Aschenbach’s life.  The literary presentation thus adds to the naked philosophical skeleton.

The balance between literature and philosophy in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche is different from that struck in the novella, but, as Mann clearly pointed out in his writings about both thinkers, both modes are present.  I suspect that any worthwhile exploration of these deep questions about living requires going beyond abstract discussions to the vivid presentation of possibilities.  If readers are to be prompted to serious examination of their lives, anatomy isn’t enough.  We have to be stimulated to imagine, in some detail, what it would be like to live in particular ways.

In the end, we learn about the most basic philosophical questions – like “How to live?” – from a broad mixture of sources, including literature and philosophy, history and anthropology.  These sources can guide our reflections on our own experiences, as we explore and reconsider.  Mann contributed to such explorations in a distinctive way, and I hope my book brings that out.

The Civic Irony of Death in Venice

3:AM: You write, significantly, that Death in Venice is “a more ironic work than is usually supposed.” Two examples you give are the moralizing narrator, and the cause of Aschenbach’s death. Erich Heller, in his essay on Mann, writes of DoV’s “ironical elegance and the overtone of mockery, subtly ridiculing the habitual posturing of the German language,” directed against “a hopeless collision between the minority demand for a realization of the spirit and a spiritualization of reality on the one hand, and, on the other, the inexorable resistance of a safely established spirit-proof view of life.” Could you elaborate on your vision of Mann’s irony, and the degree to which Mann himself was aware of it?

Kitcher: I don’t think readers of Mann have overlooked the fact that he was a great ironist, but they have tended to see the irony in particular parts of the novella, and to miss it in others.  Even though I want to expand the number of ways in which skilful ironic play happens, I suspect I’m probably guilty of the same shortcoming –and I hope that, one of these days, someone will claim that my book, while it goes in a salutary expansive direction, doesn’t go far enough, that there are assumptions I make that show I’ve missed aspects of Mann’s irony and ambiguity.  The more you read the novella, the more you should wonder, I think, which judgments are to be taken as bedrock.

To my mind, Death in Venice represents an enormous advance in Mann’s literary development, not simply for the commonly appreciated reason that he crafted a superbly supple and elegant style, apparently well suited to the kind of prose Aschenbach is supposed to write.  We find in the novella a seamless interweaving of at least two narrative voices, one of which is that of an observer so sympathetic that his language appears to be Aschenbach’s own, the other of which is superficially celebratory (except at the moment of moralistic condemnation) but undercuts Aschenbach by means of an ironic detachment.  Critics who perceive the first level of Mann’s irony recognize that the second voice is giving us reasons to be dubious about various aspects of Aschenbach’s life and work.  But many of them don’t appreciate the second level of irony, the one exemplified in setting this narrative voice alongside the more sympathetic one, and inviting us to choose.

There are, I think, interesting hints of this brilliant innovation in the novel that immediately preceded Death in VeniceRoyal Highness (Königliche Hoheit) isn’t much read, except by real Mann fans, but there are moments within it, when you can recognize shifts in narrative perspective.  After writing that novel, Mann became truly adroit at connecting narrative styles so that the gear changes are imperceptible.  To my mind, the high point of this comes in the multivocality of the Joseph tetralogy (which also is read less often than it should be), where there’s (at least) a philosophical style, a narrative history style, a debunking comic style, a high religious style, a theological style, and a style for the “higher criticism”.   Any writer who could handle all these different voices would deserve high praise, but to do so without any sense of jarring or incoherence is an extraordinary accomplishment.

So I think the tone of mockery Heller finds is a part of Mann’s irony, but only a part – a brilliant further touch consists in juxtaposing perspectives so that we’re led to wonder whether the mockery itself is the last word.

Was Mann himself fully aware of all the facets of his irony?  Probably not – any more than Shakespeare was fully aware of all the riches subsequent critics have found in his plays.  I think Mann was conscious of adopting different perspectives in different parts of the novella, but my guess is that there are plenty of passages in which the resonance of the words he chose struck him as exactly right (even though he didn’t probe to discover exactly what tone or narrative device gave them that effect).

3:AM: Deaths in Venice discusses Mann’s own inner conflicts over his homosexual feelings and reads Death in Venice through their lens. These difficulties seem to owe as much to the complications of erotic versus Platonic love (through the allusions to the Phaedrus, the Symposium, and Plutarch) than to social intolerance of homosexuality per se, joined together in what you describe as a synthesis of “bourgeois orthodoxy and the Platonic tradition.” You describe Aschenbach’s homosexuality as taking the form “dominated by the wish to fit his unformed yearnings into orthodox culture, to transcend the split between artist and citizen.” Is this wish the wish to reconcile Nietzsche’s (and Romanticism’s in general) elitist, solitary conception of the artist with Socrates’ conception of the public citizen? And is the ideal result of this reconciliation the artist as educator (Erzieher)?

Kitcher: I think Mann’s sexuality and his attitudes towards it are extremely complex – and the complexities are inherited in the figure of Aschenbach.  Mann had lived through a series of (almost certainly unconsummated) relationships with young men.  After the success of Buddenbrooks, he married and fathered six children.  Yet the surviving diaries tell us of recurrent sexual problems – and of Katia Mann’s extremely sympathetic response to them.  They also make it clear to us how dreadful for him was the prospect of exposure at the time when he feared that his (apparently far more explicit) early diaries would be read, and used, by the Nazis.  He later burned all those except the ones he needed for his literary endeavors.

Wilhelmine Germany was hostile to the expression of same-sex love – and, of course, Mann would have known of the fate of Oscar Wilde.  His early reading of Platen’s poetry, and, probably when he was in his early twenties, of Platen’s diaries, introduced him to a form of sexual expression he found profoundly congenial.  It’s not quite Platonic.  There’s a disciplined erotic component to it, so that the height of sexual contact is the embrace, the modest touch, a relatively chaste kiss.  An important passage from the surviving 1942 diary (one I quote in the book) relates this mode of sexual expression to his own life.  Mann had returned to his diary for 1927 (one of those he burned) and to his parting from the young man, Klaus Heuser, whom the family had met on holiday and invited to Munich.  Mann refers to this parting as “realizing his dreams”, when their temples touched and their lips kissed.

Klaus Mann saw very clearly how different was his own (more liberated) form of homosexuality from the same-sex attractions of his father – and that is reiterated in TM’s diary queries about “how two men can sleep together”.  So, I conclude, what Thomas Mann really wanted was a limited physical relationship with beautiful young men: the opportunity to gaze at them, an occasional touch, a restrained kiss.  That isn’t a surrogate for what he’d like to have if he were somehow free from social constraints.  It’s what the young Platen wanted, it’s what he wanted – and it’s what his Aschenbach wants.

Of course, the genesis of that type of sexual desire surely depends on the social milieu in which he grew up.  His sexual attitudes took that very particular form because he knew that “beastly behavior between men” was despised and condemned, and because some classical sources (Plato’s dialogues, in particular) gave his inchoate urges an acceptable shape.  Comparing him with his son, Klaus, we can easily appreciate how there’s been a certain type of social distortion, how full sexual intercourse with another man has come to seem repulsive and impossible, even though it might appear to be the complete fulfillment of whatever original drives inclined his sexuality toward men.  Yet we can also understand how Thomas Mann was capable of a very deep love for Katia, founded in dependence on her (even if, as his brother, Heinrich, once bitterly remarked, his most important love-object was himself).

With this as background, many things in the novella appear differently.  The classical allusions and the Platonic disquisitions on beauty are no longer a form of cover, but integral to Aschenbach’s complex sexuality.  Moreover, the wandering around Venice in pursuit of Tadzio isn’t a prelude to some sexual contact for which Aschenbach is yearning.  What he wants is more of the same – an indefinite series of opportunities to gaze on beauty.  Maybe, at the end, there would be a parting caress, but no more.

Britten’s opera tends to see things in simpler terms.  It portrays an Aschenbach who wants a richer form of sexual fulfillment, and who is hemmed in by the social conventions to which he subscribes.  But Visconti’s use of the Mahler Adagietto is perfect for what I take to be Aschenbach’s sexual desire.  Unlike, say Tristan, it’s not heading for consummation (in a Liebestod).  Instead, the Adagietto cycles, revisiting the same yearning – just like Aschenbach as he wanders around Venice, gazing on Tadzio, again, and again, and again …

Finally, this is one way to reconcile the delight in beauty with the bourgeois life.  Aschenbach, on one reading, has spent virtually all of his adult life balancing his restrained homosexuality, which is bound together with his sensitivity to beauty and thus with his artistic vocation, against the demands of conventional society.  In Venice, that delicate balance is disrupted because of the force of the desire that rises up in him (no change of direction, no wish for a fuller sexual expression) – and that force leads him to a moral lapse, when he resolves not to tell Tadzio’s mother about the presence of cholera in the city.  So he fails to combine the roles of artist-educator and upstanding citizen.  But he comes much closer than most readers of the novella imagine, and that again is one of Mann’s brilliant ironies.

3:AM: Alongside the finitude of life, you speak of the incompleteness of one’s life, and how that incompleteness leads to the very striving that enriches life with meaning. Consequently, there is a tension between one’s position in life and the estimation of what one could do but has not yet done. I read this to be saying that dissatisfaction was a central component to the possibility of meaning and satisfaction–another one of the “despites” (trotz) Aschenbach speaks of. Does accepting incompleteness reduce one’s potential? Is fighting it a source of artistic neurosis?

Kitcher: A very good question!  Aschenbach is not only a projection of Mann in the obvious ways – same daily routines, author of the works Mann had planned – nor even in sharing his author’s aspirations, doubts, and sexual identity.  His watchword, “Durchhalten!” [persevere, keep going] could be Mann’s own.  I read Aschenbach’s constant desire to go beyond the works he has already produced to be the counterpart of Mann’s deep wish to surpass his previous fiction; sometimes the diaries express this in terms of a dejected judgment that the summit has already been reached.  Schopenhauer’s thought that Will is insatiable, that once satisfied in one form it must be expressed in new desires, is inherited both by Mann and by Aschenbach (it’s in Mahler, as well).  So life is inevitably incomplete.

Late in his life, Mann wrote an essay on Chekhov, in which he saw dissatisfaction with oneself as essential to artistic striving.  So if an artist – Mann or Mahler, say – gives us a satisfying response to the finitude of life, that may be helpful for others, the Hans Hansens and Ingeborg Holms of the world, but it can’t be enduringly acceptable to the artist himself.

Sometimes, of course, the artist does give up, saying, in effect, “I’ve done enough”.  Prospero declares that the revels are ended, and breaks his staff – his author retires to Stratford.  At the very end, Mann did something similar.  Interestingly, in both instances, death came quite quickly after that.

So is fighting incompleteness the source of artistic neurosis?  I doubt it.  At most, this would apply to artists who deal with particular kinds of problems.  I don’t think we should think of Haydn or Mozart or Dickens or George Eliot in these terms.

The Possibilities of Modernism

3:AM: Death in Venice was published in 1912. The Magic Mountain was intended as a short comedic pendant to it, but the Great War forced a complete reconception of the work. Robert Musil writes as though European culture prior to 1914 can only be viewed with heavy irony in light of what came subsequently. Do you think of Death in Venice more as a capstone to the pre-war period or as an augur of the decades of European crisis to come?

Kitcher: I don’t think of Mann’s novella either as capstone or as augur.  Visconti’s film, by contrast, can be viewed as a vivid depiction of the final flowering of a form of society that came to a decisive end in 1914, and from which contemporary life is separated by an enormous gulf.  Mann was less interested, I think, in constructing any kind of “portrait of an age” than he was in delineating an individual consciousness in which profound struggles about identity and direction arise – struggles that Mann himself had not only reflected on but felt keenly.  Visconti takes up this central focus of the novella, but he couples it with a more social perspective.

The Magic Mountain can easily be appreciated as a comedic pendant to Death in Venice, if you think of both as probing the ambiguities of their central figures.  As I’ve already remarked (perhaps ad nauseam!) I’m concerned to elicit unnoticed possibilities in the novella, and the approach I take dovetails with Alexander Nehamas’ brilliant exploration of the ambiguity of Hans Castorp in the first chapter of his book, The Art of Living.  There’s more comedy in the later novel, partly because there are more characters (Death in Venice is all Aschenbach all the time – even Tadzio is no more than the impressions he produces on Aschenbach), and partly because Hans lacks the gravitas of his counterpart.  We shouldn’t forget, however, that Hans’ indecision is resolved for him in the mud of North-West Europe.

Musil’s own ironic brilliance in describing “Kakania” may well be the product of his response to the events of 1914 and the following years – and the grand plan for celebrating the coming jubilee is a masterstroke, since we know what will subvert it.  But Mann’s irony was differently grounded, possibly coupled to a cluster of doubts about himself and his art, probably partly caused by his wish to write about homo-erotic attraction in a way that was beyond conventional reproach; (as he wrote to Philipp Witkop, “You will say ‘Hm. Hm’ but it is very respectable.”)  Of course, he could hardly have been ironic about the end of an era, before the cataclysm that ended the era occurred.  Much later, he does write ironically about reactions to the outbreak of the 1914 war, ascribing to his dutiful narrator Serenus Zeitblom just the attitudes expressed by himself in 1914.  Although the protagonist of Doctor Faustus, Adrian Leverkühn, is often taken to be another of Mann’s projections of himself, it’s interesting that he assigns to his supposedly “comic” narrator his own political trajectory.

3:AM: You’ve written books on Mann and Joyce, two drastically different authors, who for you they share the quality of offering “possibilities” in a substantive and profound manner. Is there anything that unifies their technique or vision?

Kitcher: Mann and Joyce are very different, and yet their fiction often appeals to the same people: Harry Levin taught a famous course on Joyce, Proust, and Mann, and Joseph Campbell singled out Joyce and Mann as special favorites.  To see them as offering “possibilities for living”, as I do, isn’t to identify any distinctive commonality.  After all, many great authors would fall under that rubric.

What moves me to write about them is, I think, their many-sidedness.  As I said above in answer to your question about methodology, I’m interested in the multiplication of perspectives.  That’s achieved by Mann with his famous irony and ambiguity.  To my mind, the great novels that come later – The Magic Mountain, Joseph and his Brothers, Doctor Faustus – are even more remarkable in this regard, and I hope someday to write about them.  Mann explores many philosophically interesting themes: the moral significance of the family (Joseph, and also Buddenbrooks), the function of myth (Joseph, and also Der Erwählte [The Holy Sinner]) – a theme that attracted Campbell, and most obviously the debate between the Enlightenment and the Schopenhauer-Nietzsche reaction to it (Magic Mountain and Faustus).

The variety within Mann’s fiction is impressive and fascinating.  But Joyce is even more various and many-sided.  He begins his career with a wonderful sequence of bleak studies about the ways in which human lives can go awry – in my view, Dubliners is underrated.  Then comes the novel that draws young readers in—Portrait.  That contains brilliant developments of narrative technique (on which Kenner has written very insightfully), and is a wonderful subversion of the Bildungsroman.  But Portrait pales in contrast to the two novels that follow (which I take to be the two greatest achievements in English language prose fiction).  Both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are inexhaustible.  They are celebrations of the ordinary, compelling reactions to philosophical elitism about “the good life”.  I hope to examine both of them further, doing more justice to Joycean comedy than I did in my “invitation” to the Wake, and trying to understand how the extraordinary stylistic innovations, particularly the proliferation of narrative forms, enable Joyce to “see life foully” from a vast number of sides.

For anyone who conceives literature in terms of plurality of perspectives, Finnegans Wake has to be the apogee.  For, as we are told, every word in it has three score and ten “toptypsical” meanings – an exaggeration, of course, but an important reminder to readers who like their fiction definite.

3:AM: You speak of an artistic philosophy of “showing” in Wagner and Joyce as delineating possibilities with “a tacit injunction: Consider this.” What is the vital art of today, in any medium, that provides possibilities that merit the sort of deep consideration you’ve given Mann and Joyce?

Kitcher: Curmudgeon that I am, I’m inclined to say: “There isn’t any.”  Perhaps if I knew more about film and video art, this assessment would change, but, to my mind, the literature and music of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries lack the depth and richness of the great “high” moderns – not only Joyce and Mann, but also Proust and Musil.  There are a few exceptions.  The dramas of Beckett and Pinter surely repay philosophical exploration (Cavell already appreciated that in the 1960s).  With respect to prose fiction, I admire Günter Grass’ Danzig Trilogy (Dog Years, in particular), some of the novels of Marguerite Yourcenar (especially Mémoires d’Hadrien), but these are decades old already.  The most recent author who has sparked an urge for study and (possibly) writing is the late W.G. Sebald: in my view, the four novellas that constitute The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten) are the high point of prose fiction since Mann’s Doctor Faustus.  In music, I’m intrigued by Ligeti, but my lack of training in contemporary music-theory is likely to restrict me to delighted listening.

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer who lives in New York. He writes the Bitwise column for Slate.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 31st, 2014.