Thomas Mann, James Joyce and the Problem of Self-Isolation in Modernism.

A paradoxical feature of living through the early stages of a pandemic is the civic requirement to alienate oneself within a global population bound to each other by the same invisible enemy.

Indeed, one of the challenges of generating new discourses of self and other around the spread of coronavirus is orienting them around local and global solidarity. Whilst there has been an admirable effort to persuade healthier people to think about how they can unconsciously harm others, a somewhat standoffish disposition towards Other People arises as a result of this conceptualisation, which advises caution towards humanity as a bustling homogeneity and champions the discrete individual’s stoical duty to self-isolate. This isn’t to say that either are unnecessary, but certainly in Britain this impetus towards self-discipline has the convenient consequence of removing accountability from the structures of leadership which are designed to safeguard all of our lives.

This tension reminded me of a very modern paradigm when I picked up a volume of Thomas Mann’s short stories whilst scrambling for some decent quarantine reading.

One of the ruling philosophical quandaries of the modernist period of literature was the relationship of the author to the hustle and bustle of whoever they chose to regard as ordinary people. Without going into detail, a number of obvious factors were instrumental in making the world of the modernists a thoroughly transformed one in terms of demographics – amongst other developments the Industrial Revolution had thoroughly urbanized workers, suffrage rights were slowly extending across Europe, and public transport was becoming increasingly sophisticated.

Indeed, amongst some of modernism’s haughtier exponents, this crowding is itself felt as a sort of contagion, threatening to contaminate the ideals which previously underpinned human life. In The Waste Land T. S. Eliot can be seen squirming in reaction to modern social mobility, most notably in his cruel portrayal of a clerk as ‘[o]ne of the low on whom assurance sits / As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire’. D. H. Lawrence likewise becomes increasingly misanthropic as his literary career progresses, with Women in Love, whose protagonist Rupert Birkin’s ‘dislike of mankind […] amounted almost to an illness’ is full of choice lines defending the extermination of the masses on ecological grounds.


Mann is a difficult writer to talk about, in part because so much of his work is drawn to describing impulses which are best kept secret, not least in the case of the repulsively frank, semi-autobiographical account of pederasty within ‘Death in Venice’, one of his best-known short stories. I can understand those who would be bored with the German writer’s collection of  self-pitying outcasts and aesthetes, or indeed those who would argue that there is little to redeem the writing of someone with his predilections.

However, one of the reasons why I liked reading Mann’s short stories, and found value in them, was a genuine, if slightly awkward good faith engagement with the relatively new phenomenon of ‘the masses’ compared to other modernists. Looking at Mann’s ‘Tonio Kröger’ in detail, we can see that an essential ingredient of this engagement is a pervading self-conscious embarrassment that the artist feels when exposed to their social isolation, a feeling which is a promising but unsatisfactory resolution to the problem of the alienated artist.

‘Tonio Kröger’ is a thoughtful story which is a pleasing progression from the half-formed meditations of ‘Tristan’ and ‘The Joker’ earlier in the collection, stories which just didn’t appear interested in reconciling the artist with the wider world. In both, the delusions of artistic grandeur suffered by the protagonists are revealed to be at odds with how life really works, but in this ‘life’ itself has no real magnetism (especially in the romance of ‘Tristan’, which takes place within the walls of a sanatorium), with Mann’s characters instead failing because they cannot bend themselves to the uncompromising ways of the living.

To begin our analysis of ‘Tonio Kröger’ in media res, the crucial moment of the story is a (rather one-sided) conversation between the eponymous Tonio and his arty friend Lisaveta. Tonio proposes a mutual incompatibility between life and art, reasoning that ‘[o]ne simply has to be something inhuman’, detached from the emotional world, to render life as art.

Lisaveta diagnoses Tonio as a bourgeois manqué, and not without justification. Indeed, the crisis of the story unfolds out of Tonio’s feelings of saudade for romances that he never had with his beautiful and thoroughly banal acquaintances Hans and Ingeborg during his childhood in a Hanseatic town as the son of the wealthy Consul Kröger. When Tonio, now a successful writer, has a chance encounter with Hans and Ingeborg, now a couple, in Ålsgårde, Denmark, he realises that his duty is to find a way to convey the beauty in this banality.

Tonio sentimentally re-encounters his intellectually drab middle-class origins as ‘a whole world of innocent delight’, finding that he has no desire to abandon this ‘love of mine for the human’ for the perceived need for objectivity which creativity entails. His is a creativity which asserts itself as belonging to ‘two worlds’, the genius and the mundane – as Tonio puts it ‘my bourgeois nature and my love for “life” are one and the same’.

That the bourgeois nature of ‘normality’ is so stressed is interesting. It is tempting to think that Tonio is using ‘bourgeois’ as a catch-all phrase which encompasses his sense of the wider world as somewhat frivolous, but we must remember that it is his own material background, as the son of a man who ‘held public office in the town and wielded considerable influence’, that he is talking about.

Thus the ‘bourgeois conscience’ which makes Tonio ‘see the whole business of being an artist […] as something profoundly equivocal’ emerges as a reductive frame for engaging the artist with the outer world. This is not to say that bringing the artistic sphere, traditionally the preserve of the upper-class in the early 20th century, into contact with the bourgeois, upwardly mobile barbarians at the gate wasn’t ambitious by the standards of the time, but Tonio, and perhaps Mann, are making a much smaller point disguised as a broad thesis on ‘life’.

Tonio’s lust for life can be reduced to an expression of guilt on behalf of his perceived betrayal of his class, a guilt that Mann perhaps shared given the role that overbearing, disappointed mercantile fathers play in this collection. The dismissal of writing as ‘equivocal’ echoes Tonio’s generally self-deprecating view of his ‘oversophisticated and impoverished’ writerly persona. Such self-castigation, however, which views the object of writing as reproducing the sterile gentility of the bourgeois class within which Tonio feels at home, argues that art accesses ‘life’ only through retreating towards the unhappy, unresolved neuroses of class.


James Joyce was another bourgeois manqué, and to undertake a slightly sweeping summary of his life, he effectively swapped a stifling life amongst the Dublin intelligentsia for a less financially secure but more adventurous passage through various European cultural centres, including Paris, Trieste and Zürich. In spite of this, very rarely do his stories venture that far beyond Dublin and its suburbs, and he is strikingly stuck between his disdain for his home city’s intellectual strata and his desire to internalize this city’s every detail. (1)

Whereas Mann takes it as a fait accompli that the art, in its ‘equivocal’ capacities, and the aspirational banality of bourgeois life are totally distinct, Joyce arrives at a more integrated conception of how the creative spirit functions within ordinary life. The Irishman accomplishes this feat through a more sophisticated understanding of the ‘bourgeois’ as a network of relations which makes the ordinary person and the artist appear to be mutually exclusive categories.

In its compositional context Ulysses is like a 900 page Burn Book, and you could easily make an argument characterising Joyce as one of Tonio’s artists for ‘whom literature is a quiet way of taking their revenge on life’. Whilst there is a deeply personal aspect to the portrayal of characters such as Buck Mulligan and Lynch in the novel (2), within this mess there is a very strong polemic against a certain kind of middle-class boorishness which Mann unfortunately fetishises.

Ulysses focuses on the lives of two men, Stephen Dedalus, a semi-autobiographical aesthete who is struggling to make his mark on Dublin’s literary scene, and Leopold Bloom, an advertising canvasser whose eclectic interests and curious disposition mark him out from the rest of his caste. Stephen is pretty similar to Tonio, with both men deeply contemplative types who have little time for the perfunctory routines of ‘normality’, but one senses that there is much more distance between Joyce and his younger self than Mann and his creation. This distance combines with another crucial fact to really fortify Joyce’s critique, that fact being that there is no-one in Mann’s canon quite like Bloom.

Though the bourgeois are given their own quasi-dignity in ‘Tonio Kröger’, it is a dignity which vindicates their class character and in doing so consigns the bourgeois individual to a limited intellectual life by default. A particularly telling example arises when Tonio, speaking with Lisaveta, discusses his ‘particular kind of contempt’ for ‘the living human being who thinks he can occasionally try his hand at being an artist’, using a cruel story about a lieutenant who had the temerity to read a few lines of poetry at a party as an example.

In his portrayal of Bloom Joyce does the opposite, using the ugliness of middle-class life in Dublin to show how the distinction between the ‘two worlds’ of normality and creative life is enforced. The amateur intellectualism of Bloom, whom Tonio would call a ‘dilettante’, is as I mentioned thoroughly at odds with his acquaintances on account of his sensitivity and curiosity. One indicative example out of many is in the book’s ‘Wandering Rocks’ episode (3), where Lenehan, a local mouth-breather who knows Bloom, gleefully tells a friend about a sordid episode where, while Bloom was discussing astronomy on the way back from a fancy dinner, Lenehan took advantage of the moment to grope his wife.

In Stephen’s case, bourgeois life clashes with his artistic aspirations through its existence as an inarguably tawdry and cruel, but most importantly systematic arrangement. Joyce himself, talking about the likes of Gogarty and Cosgrave in a vituperative poem ‘The Holy Office’, grumbled that ‘all these men of whom I speak / Make me the sewer of their clique’, and the propensity of the bourgeois strata to close ranks and victimize is a feature of Stephen’s life in Ulysses. There are references throughout the text to Stephen’s troubled relations with various real-life Dublin literati, including George William Russell (‘Æ’), ‘[t]he tramper’ John Millington Synge and Padraic Colum amongst others, with Stephen, lacking the approbation of the city’s Protestant intelligentsia, comparing himself to King Lear’s lonely Cordelia amongst them. The lack of a functional meritocracy within Dublin’s bourgeois literary scene means that Stephen, who refuses to toe the line, instead must get by through degrading odd jobs. (4)

Because of his radical decision to assert that some of the procedures of ‘normal’ (i.e. middle-class) life are actually a bit crap, Joyce is able to bring together Dedalus, the intellectual exiled from the bourgeois, and Bloom, the bourgeois with socially-alienating intellectual sympathies late on in the novel. The effect of this is partially to show that it is not a metaphysical binary between normal life and Tonio’s ‘insight’ which separates the amateur and professional intellectual, but instead the intense social stratifications of modernity. 

Let’s have a closer look at the ‘Ithaca’ segment of Ulysses to better illustrate this point. This is one of the most complex and deftly comic chapters of the book, structured in the form of a series of questions and answers. Here, Bloom is escorting Stephen back to Bloom’s house in the early hours of the morning, with the younger man sobering up after a series of betrayals by the aforementioned ‘clique’ during a phantasmagorical night in the Dublin underworld.

Difference takes two different forms in this episode – the said and the unsaid. One acknowledged the ‘divergent’ area between the two men concerns their ‘views on some points’, from ‘the affirmation of the spirit of man in literature’ to ‘the date of the conversion of the Irish nation to christianity from druidism’. In a sense these are ‘creative differences’, linking the two men through the connective act of discourse in a perpendicular fashion.

The real, unsaid divergence, the lingering feeling of separation between the two men, is created by the effect of the smaller fragmentations constantly at work within the cliquish structure of the bourgeois class. Bloom mentally enumerates ‘four separating forces’ between himself and Stephen, namely: ‘Name, age, race, creed’. Race is one of several, separate ‘parallel lines’ in this exchange, as when Stephen shares an off-colour song about a murderous ‘jew’s daughter’ with the Jewish Bloom, to which Stephen’s host silently reacts with ‘mixed feelings’, turning his contemplation inward for a moment rather than responding to Stephen and continuing their debate.

The artless Bloom and the artful Stephen thus connect through the universal language of the creative spirit, but the silent, insidious tendency of the bourgeois class to create endless internal divisions and subdivisions makes the artist feel a solitary hermit and the man of business feel utterly ordinary. Rather than Mann’s self-indulgent mistrust of the artist and patronising enthusiasm for the bourgeois, Joyce eschews this useful but ultimately flippant view and chooses to see things as they are, realising that the fault lies with neither, thus giving both Bloom and Stephen their own unique dignity.


Are there valid criticisms of Joyce’s approach? Of course! Whilst lower-middle-class characters such as Stephen and amateur intellectuals such as Bloom are afforded this innate creative geist, many of the true Dublin poor emerge as one-dimensional creations of the music hall. But you can’t help but wonder if Mann’s lieutenant and Tonio would have connected if not for the inexorable bourgeois tyranny of social categorization.

If you’re wondering how this is relevant to my original contemporary theme, bear with me – I didn’t want this to be over 2,000 words either. What I would say is that one thing the Modernists have to teach us is that we have to be very careful in identifying the culprit of any cultural or social malaise – Lawrence might have blamed the decline of English countryside on the working stock from whence he came, but one of the men responsible for this ‘ghoulish replica of the real world’ in Women in Love, Gerald Crich, is glorified as a near-Übermensch. (5)

The creation of a self / other binary in this current climate, whether it be the selfless quarantined and selfish commuters, or the increasing focus ‘vectors of contagion’ in graphic form, will inevitably lead to stand-offs in the supermarket and the street. As with Tonio, we are conditioned to see ourselves as the problem, and as such the status quo is reaffirmed. Hopefully what we demand from our governments at this point will not solely focus on measures designed to further entrench these internal tensions (e.g. military and police intervention), but will look at testing, a flexible approach to rent and unemployment issues, and other early preventive steps as an acknowledgement that we are either isolated or unified, as with Stephen and Bloom, by the social frameworks which underpin our lives.

(1) I’d point any budding Joyce fans in the direction of the constant letters he wrote to his poor Aunt concerning details about Dublin for his novels, including whether it would be possible for the Average Joe to climb over the railings of 7 Eccles Street – you have to wonder how she was supposed to work that one out.

(2) The real life Buck Mulligan was Joyce’s former friend, poet, medical man, and statesman Oliver St. John Gogarty, whose shared living arrangements with Joyce ended disastrously when Gogarty nearly accidentally killed the writer in the early hours of the morning. Whilst Lynch was based on Vincent Cosgrave, another close friend who tried to tempt Joyce’s soon-to-be wife Nora away from him.

(3) The book is divided into 18 different segments, each based off a separate ‘episode’ from Homer’s Odyssey – this often brings forth some inspired parallels from Joyce, with the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus instead replaced by an anti-Semitic pub bore who is ‘one-eyed’ in a narrow-minded sense.

(4) One of my favourite jokes in the book is Stephen’s reference to his work for ‘[t]he pigs’ paper’, which alludes to Joyce’s embarrassment at having to submit work to The Irish Homestead (the very first paper to publish Joyce, featuring ‘The Sisters’, the opening story in Dubliners). Joyce requested a pseudonym so that his submissions for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society weekly were not widely known. 

(5) ‘It was not for the sake of money that Gerald took over the mines [] What he wanted was the pure fulfilment of his own will in the struggle with the natural conditions’

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