Thomas Mann, Letters

katia pringsheim 1905


End of August 1904

…Stupid? If you like. You are so utterly enchanting a creature, my Katia, that for all I care you could be ‘a little stupid.’ That you aren’t, you yourself know best. But if by ‘stupid’ you mean the opposite of ‘smart’ (and I suppose that is it), by all means be so. I am the same way and am pleased to be so. For ‘smartness’ is something deeply nasty. The ‘smart’ person confines himself to eating no more than two rolls every day, lives cautiously, loves cautiously, and is too cautious to resolutely bind his life to his love. Everything naive, noble, and devout is ‘stupid,’ all intrepid devotion on this earth. Let us be ‘stupid,’ my Katia!


Late September 1904

… that you – immortal phrase – showed me your books.

Otto Weininger

No comment on the following passage from Otto Weininger, Sex and Character, 120-121:


It is very shortsighted of any one to consider the nurse as a proof of the sympathy of women, because it really implies the opposite. For a man could never stand the sight of the sufferings of the sick; he would suffer so intensely that he would be completely upset and incapable of lengthy attendance on them. Any one who has watched nursing sisters is astonished at their equanimity and “sweetness” even in the presence of most terrible death throes; and it is well that it is so, for man, who cannot stand suffering and death, would make a very bad nurse. A man would want to assuage the pain and ward off death; in a word, he would want to help; where there is nothing to be done he is better away; it is only then that nursing is justified and that woman offers herself for it. But it would be quite wrong to regard this capacity of women in an ethical aspect.

Here it may be said that for woman the problem of solitude and society does not exist. She is well adapted for social relations (as, for instance, those of a companion or sick- nurse), simply because for her there is no transition from solitude to society. In the case of a man, the choice between solitude and society is serious when it has to be made. The woman gives up no solitude when she nurses the sick, as she would have to do were she to deserve moral credit for her action; a woman is never in a condition of solitude, and knows neither the love of it nor the fear of it. The woman is always living in a condition of fusion with all the human beings she knows, even when she is alone; she is not a “monad,” for all monads are sharply marked off from other existences. Women have no definite inidividual limits; they are not unlimited in the sense that geniuses have no limits, being one with the whole world; they are unlimited only in the sense that they are not marked off from the common stock of mankind.

This sense of continuity with the rest of mankind is a sexual character of the female, and displays itself in the desire to touch, to be in contact with, the object of her pity; the mode in which her tenderness expresses itself is a kind of animal sense of contact. It shows the absence of the sharp line that separates one real personality from another. The woman does not respect the sorrow of her neighbour by silence; she tries to raise him from his grief by speech, feeling that she must be in physical, rather than spiritual, contact with him.

This diffused life, one of the most fundamental qualities of the female nature, is the cause of the impressibility of all women, their unreserved and shameless readiness to shed tears on the most ordinary occasion. It is not without reason that we associate wailing with women, and think little of a man who sheds tears in public. A woman weeps with those that weep and laughs with those that laugh – unless she herself is the cause of the laughter – so that the greater part of female sympathy is ready-made.

It is only women who demand pity from other people, who weep before them and claim their sympathy. This is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the psychical shamelessness of women. A woman provokes the compassion of strangers in order to weep with them and be able to pity herself more than she already does. It is not too much to say that even when a woman weeps alone she is weeping with those that she knows would pity her and so intensifying her self-pity by the thought of the pity of others. Self-pity is eminently a female characteristic; a woman will associate herself with others, make herself the object of pity for these others, and then at once, deeply stirred, begin to weep with them about herself, the poor thing. Perhaps nothing so stirs the feeling of shame in a man as to detect in himself the impulse towards this self-pity, this state of mind in which the subject becomes the object.

As Schopenhauer put it, female sympathy is a matter of sobbing and wailing on the slightest provocation, without the smallest attempt to control the emotion; on the other hand, all true sorrow, like true sympathy, just because it is real sorrow, must be reserved; no sorrow can really be so reserved as sympathy and love, for these make us most fully conscious of the limits of each personality. Love and its bashfulness will be considered later on; in the meantime let us be assured that in sympathy, in genuine masculine sympathy, there is always a strong feeling of reserve, a sense almost of guilt, because one’s friend is worse off than oneself, because I am not he, but a being separated from his being by extraneous circumstances. A man’s sympathy is the principle of individuality blushing for itself; and hence man’s sympathy is reserved whilst that of woman is aggressive.

The existence of modesty in women has been discussed already to a certain extent; I shall have more to say about it in relation with hysteria. But it is difficult to see how it can be maintained that this is a female virtue, if one reflect on the readiness with which women accept the habit of wearing low- necked dresses wherever custom prescribes it. A person is either modest or immodest, and modesty is not a quality which can be assumed or discarded from hour to hour.

Strong evidence of the want of modesty in woman is to be derived from the fact that women dress and undress in the presence of one another with the greatest freedom, whilst men try to avoid similar circumstances. Moreover, when women are alone together, they are very ready to discuss their physical qualities, especially with regard to their attractiveness for men; whilst men, practically without exception, avoid all notice of one another’s sexual characters.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 32 in C Minor, Opus 111, II Arietta: Adagio molto semplice


There’s a perverse sort of irony, cheek and reverse-snobbery behind composing serious music in C Major, which is just what Beethoven did in the second movement of the last piano sonata he wrote, the Arietta of Piano Sonata 32. Anyone who learnt piano will have a little soft spot for the C major scale. Well, I do. I still remember the small relief I felt when prompted by my teacher, who managed to stage the theatre of an exam in each of her lessons, to play something in C major –  scales with both hands; in contrary motion; in arpeggio. Look at me – no black keys! There was Middle C, splitting the centre of the keyboard. From that North Star, every key made sense in what as a novice seemed an identical constellation of black and white. It was the key in which I first played by ear Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, with my left hand playing its first supporting harmony. And later, it was the key in which I foolishly invented my own variations to that song – with broken inverted chords and strange jazz rhythms. Good old C – saving my kid arse as I sight-read pieces I should have been practicing the week before. Good old C, all the barbarism of that key signature hiding in plain sight.

This is completely beyond my realm of expertise, but I suspect that somewhere, someone has codified the affect of each key signature of the Western diatonic scale. In its most brutal form, such a code could suggest that A major was hypocritical; A flat major lackadaisical. A little while ago I noticed my favourite Romantic pieces were generally composed in D flat major, a deeply nostalgic-feeling, or perhaps a wildly manipulative, nostalgia-inducing key. C major is the sound of childhood, the key of naivety. Yet at the same time it is the key of modernity – the exemplar of the diatonic scale emerging out of the Renaissance to become the foundation of Western harmony. The C major scale, tapped out on the keyboard, is just as good as any sound signature for the Age of Reason. In fact at this moment I’m convinced there is no better sonic metaphor for Positivism. It is a prohibition on introspection – there is nothing in music less intuitive than the idea of the C major scale.

Yet the Arietta is to be played slowly and simply (adagio e semplice) – that is, in such a way as to invoke introspection and intuition. The time signatures, 9/16 and 12/22, are not to be trifled with but in their way denote a removal from strict tempo. The temporality is – weird. Amazingly weird.  The first phrase, written to be played in repeat,  is only 8 bars long (16 with the repeat), but feels longer as it moves hypnotically in dominant to tonic chords. The harmonies are very basic and, in the post-classical moment in which they were written, movingly simple. Paired with the odd, glacial time signature and tempo, the effect recalls a choral scene of an earlier era. Those consecutive 5ths and 8ths could even be construed as a reference to the organum of very early sacred music.

Then things move along. Dreamily, the register shifts, after another glacial passage of more organum but with a minor inflection, to a flurry of 16th notes, reminiscent of a courtly dance (Allemande? Courante?) that maintains the logic of strict harmony in what are essentially arpeggiated chords. This is probably a good time to mention that the first time I heard this piece in its entirety was during the dance of Sylvie Guillem, a contemporary prima. What she danced was not ballet as such – but it was not divorced from the ballet tradition. The performance deserves an entry of its own.


So intrinsic to the piece is the sense of deconstruction Guillem embodied in her dance. She would occasionally flick a foot out in a mock ballerina gesture that actually, very casually, displayed the incredible power and form she maintains as a real-deal prima. In this way she was very truthful to ballet. In the Arietta Beethoven is truthful to the history of Western art music. The piece is relatively short, but contains history, immense history – all condensed, and confessed to the listener in the equivalent of one of Guillem’s flip gestures. The crazy aspect of Beethoven’s historicity is that he quite strangely anticipates what sounds like ragtime. This happens somewhere one third of the way into the piece and if you’re like me – generally cynical and therefore easily duped – you’d probably assume that someone got jazzy with the recording and spliced something contemporary into that first third mark for kicks.

But they didn’t. It is remarkable that in what appears to be a historical account of musical forms, the composer somehow intuited a major form that at the time was still very much yet-to-be. Was the form immanent, self-evident given what had come before it? Only a genius could speculate. What a fine piece of speculation. I watched Slavoj Zizek’s new film, Pervert’s Guide to Ideology recently and enjoyed the claim he made about Beethoven’s Ninth. The relatively ignored coda to the Ode to Joy contains Beethoven’s critique of ideology, Zizek argues. It suggests an ’empty container’ embodied by the very famous piece of music that precedes it. Was Beethoven also operating in critique in this movement of the Piano Sonata 32? What could it mean, that this prophetic pastiche could function as a parody but is nonetheless so beautiful? Is there in fact any contradiction here?

I think what moves me about this second movement is its use of history to speak of freedom. The music is cynical in the sense that it does not accept that music is ahistorical or universal. Yet it also refuses to remain at this point – at the same time as it speaks through history, it refuses to accept history. It is speculative and superficial, gliding across centuries and into the future. I think such a freedom – fleetingly won here – is a difficult freedom and all the more moving to fleetingly witness.

This was the last sonata Beethoven wrote for piano. The music is giving way to a wilderness of sympathy for life in all its absurd forms. Death knocks at the door. Mortality shrugs off form. There is joy in parody. Parody annihilates  pathos. Parody is beautiful.