02/19/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

A Love Letter From One Century to Another: A Review of Wolfgang Lederer's Disorder and Early Love: The Eroticism of Thomas Mann

As hard as I tried in my first attempt last year to write a review of Disorder and Early Love: The Eroticism of Thomas Mann by Wolfgang Lederer, M.D., I failed. The book is huge and I couldn't get a purchase on it. But, the book and its subject matter would not leave me alone and kept calling to me in spite of my resistance to take on the monumental nature of Dr. Lederer's undertaking. Finally, I realized that I had been approaching it the wrong way in that I was bringing a 21st century sensibility to a 20th century work of art. I was reading the book as if it were an email, something that could be scanned and summarized with all the ease and shallowness of our bullet point trained brains. The book simply refused to be treated in that way, but I gradually came to realize that, both for the purposes of a review and as advice for its potential readers, the book deserves to be taken in slowly, bits and pieces at a time, not as sound bites but as tasty morsels to be savored.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Dr. Lederer's book is his ability to seamlessly weave together a series of narratives in which he tells each of Mann's stories while simultaneously co-mingling them with quotes from exchanges of letters between Mann and his friends about his struggles as a writer, diaries that Mann's wife wrote about their life together, fascinating biographical details fleshed out by Lederer's meticulous researches that give a personal and historical background for each of Mann's stories, and finally Lederer's own psychological interpretations of the meaning of each story in terms of the trajectory of Mann's evolving psyche and artistry as well as its place in the history of European literature -- from Plato to Goethe to Nietzsche. This is no small feat in that all of the different contributing threads are woven together to read as a coherent whole rather than as just so many separate stories. Nowhere is Lederer's talent on greater display than in his recounting of the tale of Death in Venice.

Death in Venice is one of the great novellas in all of literature, written in 1912 , shortly before the outbreak of World War I. One wonders now if the book in some way anticipated the collapse of an era. It details the love of an older man, Ashenbach, for a beautiful boy, Tadzio, and ends in Ashenbach's falling into dissolution and dying from a cholera epidemic. Death in Venice is based on a series of actual incidents that occurred on a journey to Venice that Mann took with his family in 1911.

Lederer allows Mann's wife, Katia, to introduce the boy to us in a quote from her diary:

...the very first day we saw that Polish family which looked exactly as my husband has described them [in Death in Venice]... with... the most charming boy of about 13, pretty as a picture, dressed in a sailor suit with open collar and a nice bow, who caught my husband's eye. He had a weakness for this youngster who appealed to him tremendously, and he did always observe him on the beach with his playmates. (p. 301)

In Mann's own words, the youth makes his first appearance in Death in Venice through the eyes of Aschenbach, the protagonist and alter-ego of Mann:

With amazement Aschenbach noted the boy's perfect beauty. His countenance, pale and of a gentle reserve, was framed by honey-colored ringlets. With its straight nose, pleasing mouth, and the expression of gracious and godlike seriousness, it recalled Greek statues of the noblest period: and despite the purest perfection of form it possessed such uniquely personal charm that the observer felt he had never, in nature or art, seen anything nearly so succeeded. (p. 319)

Later, Mann writes of Ashenbach's reaction to Tadzio:

...he was more beautiful that can be expressed, and Ashenbach felt, as often before, the painful awareness that words may praise sensual beauty but cannot render it... Joy, astonishment, admiration showed quite openly as his glance encountered the one he had so missed... and in that second it happened that Tadzio smiled: smiled at him, expressively, intimately, charmingly and openly, with lips that only slowly opened as he smiled... (p. 336)

Lederer goes on to link Mann's mesmerized observations of the boy on the beach in Venice with an early love in Mann's own boyhood:

...we know how Mann was rejected by Armin Martens, and how that torment was resolved by time -- as puberty destroyed Armin's charm -- and by death, as Armin perished in drunken exile. As Mann was watching Wladislaw Count Moes (the actual boy on the beach in Venice on whom Tadzio was modeled), it was this early love that came back to life, with its unfulfilled longing and lasting frustration, but also with its reminder of the transitoriness of passion, the need to come to an end with it. (p. 335)

Lederer then speculates on the nature of Aschenbach's love for Tadzio, which he views at least partly as a stand in for Mann's early love of Armin Martens:

The (story) says something very fine and profound about love: Ashenbach, in his lonely neediness -- his wife long dead, his daughter not only married but apparently of no interest, he has no friends, and above all he has no son -- is stimulated by Tadzio's beauty to attribute to him semi-divine qualities that make him into the very image of what he desires; and because this image is of his own creation and for his own use, wherein the real Tadzio is just a means, a tool -- therefore the whole passion is highly narcissistic. The god is in the lover, not in the beloved! Tadzio, for his part, noticing the attention, the admiration accorded him by the old man who is otherwise of no possible interest to him, experiences this admiration as a mirror of his own beauty and lovableness, is only through such attention made fully aware of and confirmed in his own attractiveness. Thus two narcissisms, by their very nature self-contained and isolated, nevertheless by stimulating each other establish a bond that, at least on Aschenbach's side but perhaps not only on his, deserves the name of love. (pp. 336, 337)

And now, back to Mann's own words in Death in Venice as he plunges Ashenback into the following reverie:

There he sat, his eyes closed... his lips formed some of the words of what his brain, half asleep, produced with peculiar dream-logic: 'For beauty, Phaidros (of the Platonic dialogue) note it well: only beauty is divine and visible at the same time, and so it is the path of the sensualist, little Phaidros, the path of the artist to the spirit.' (p. 343)

Lederer elaborates on the meaning of Aschenbach's (Mann's) reverie with his own words:

Even so, it comes across clearly that homoeroticism is for Thomas Mann a love affair between a Geist -- a spirit -- admiring a body, and a body admiring a spirit as beautiful: a thoroughly Socratic view consistent with Aschenbach's silent monologues. (p. 357)

Wolfgang Lederer is not a Jungian psychoanalyst, but Ashenbach's experience of Tadzio and Mann's experience of Martens, are what Jungians would call archetypal in the sense that the encounter in the psyche is between the divine (the archetype) and the human where nature and spirit sometimes dance together and sometimes destroy one another. And this archetypal encounter leads us back to Plato's The Phaedrus in which he argues that it is the attraction to and contemplation of beauty that allows the soul to grow its wings and glimpse the divine source of beauty. In Plato's view, beauty awakens the soul to the immaterial, spiritual divinity which is the ground of all being. Beauty possesses the soul and awakens it to divinity. This same awakening can imperil the soul when the glimpse of the divine through the senses of the material incarnation of beauty is fixated on as the divine itself.

Putting Dr. Lederer' analysis of Death in Venice and his entire study of Thomas Mann's eroticism in context, I have come to think of his book as a love letter from the late 19th and 20th century to the 21st century. It is a soulful transmission to us about the nature of one type of love in that era -- and perhaps to some extent in every era. Every page of the book communicates Dr. Lederer's love of Thomas Mann in the care with which he sensitively and objectively explores the vicissitudes of Mann's life, character, and story telling. At the center of the book is an exploration of love itself and what constitutes its normality and disorder as determined by biology, psychology and culture. In the psychopathological terminology of the 20th century Mann's life long struggle with his "latent" or "repressed" homoerotic desires is at the center of Lederer's inquiry. Contemporary readers of Lederer's treatise should remember that throughout all of the 20th century, the Boy Scouts were not conducting a public debate about whether or not young gay man could be openly accepted into the troops. Indeed, I have imagined the first sentence of the book to read: "Dear 21rst century, This is the way in which 'we' of the late 19th Century and most of the 20th century experienced one form of love."

The care with which Lederer constructs his love letter reminds me, rather idiosyncratically and synchronistically, of a visit to the World War Two Museum in New Orleans. Just as with Lederer's writing, one can sense in the museum the human touch, strength and even tenderness in every weld of the sturdily, even massively, built trucks, tanks and airplanes of that time. Reading Lederer's own biography confirms that he, too, is a uniquely 20th century man of enormous stature, strength, intelligence and integrity. Lederer's study of Mann is equally well built -- with sections that range from Mann's childhood and adolescence to young adulthood and eventual world renown as one of the literary giants of the 20th century.

Like Lederer's book and even his life, the 20th century was a monumental era dominated by larger than life events and larger than life men such as Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt. Mann was worthy of the scale of the times in his grand, mythological tales and Lederer is worthy of Mann in his grand, human tale of Mann. Perhaps it is the scale of this book's ambition that so fully mirrors the scale of the people and events of the 20th century that would not let me abandon the attempt to honor his work. Dr. Lederer has sent his love letter about Thomas Mann to the 21st century and it is worthy of our admiration and love.