’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone. – John Donne
In Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’ (1925) the characters in one family reflect the calamitous political events in post-war Germany. The Kaiser had been forced to abdicate and flee into exile after the military defeat in 1918, when the monarchy became a republic. Oswald Spengler published his pessimistic and ominous The Decline of the West, in two volumes, in 1918 and 1923. In 1919 the idealistic but short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic collapsed, and the Spartacist-Communist revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered. The distinguished German-Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau, was assassinated in 1922. In 1923 Hitler staged the abortive beer-hall putsch in Munich, his first violent bid for power, and the French occupied the industrial heartland of the Ruhr after Germany had failed to pay war reparations. The Reichsbank collapsed, causing a severe economic crisis. This was marked by mass unemployment and wild currency inflation, which wiped out the lifetime savings of the middle class. In Weimar Chronicle, Alex de Jonge wrote that there was a vast ‘difference between the “old” generation who had scraped and saved carefully in order to acquire the security of a house and the “new generation” for whom there could be no security any more, who “raided capital” or what was left of it, and were prepared to go to any lengths to enjoy themselves’.
The focus of the story narrows from the political and economic disorder of the nation to the social disorder of the guests who gather at a family party, to the private disorder of Professor Cornelius and his daughter Ellie. The characters are clearly based on Mann’s own family in Munich. The older children, who want to be actors, are modelled on Klaus and Erika, who would soon have a successful cabaret act. The younger ones, Ellie and Snapper, are based on Elisabeth – Mann’s favourite – and the ill-tempered Michael. Mann omitted his middle set of children, Monika and Golo. The first paragraph presents a striking contrast to the opening of ‘The Blood of the Walsungs’. Both stories portray parents and four children – two girls and two boys – and the older children, like Siegmund and Sieglinde, ‘are fast friends, two souls with but a single thought, and have all their adventures in common’. But the Cornelius family’s shabby existence during the post-war austerity is very different from the sumptuous hedonism in ‘Walsungs’. The contrast is marked by their servants: by the Corneliuses’ cheeky and casual Xaver and the Aarenholds’ formal and elegant Wendelin. Mann’s early stories, though autobiographical, are ironic and satiric. This later story, by contrast, has much more personal warmth and human feeling. Hemingway, who always wanted to have a daughter himself, greatly admired Mann’s portrayal of domestic turbulence.
Mann was a middle-aged fifty when he published the story. Cornelius is forty-seven but seems older than his years to intensify the contrast between the older and younger generations. As Evelyn Waugh wrote when reviewing a book on etiquette, ‘In normal civilisations it is the old who are the custodians of the tribal customs. It is their duty to transmit them. The young can enjoy flouting them until they themselves age, when they will find they revert to the conventions they were first taught’. Germany, however, is not a ‘normal civilisation’ at this stage. Cornelius, the custodian of traditional customs, does not seem to realise that the militaristic values of the old men, which he cherishes, have led directly to the recent cataclysmic war.
Cornelius, a historian, is temperamentally and professionally conservative, especially when warnings of evil and threats of disaster define the precarious political atmosphere. Cornelius, as Malcolm Muggeridge said of George Orwell, ‘loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future’. He hates the revolution that had convulsed Russia and murdered the royal family in 1917, and mourns the collapse of the German, Austro- Hungarian and Ottoman Empires that followed in 1918. He is also afraid of the volatile tinder in the German air, especially in Munich – the scene of a recent revolution – that threatens to explode at any moment. He is
an expert on the Spanish King Philip II (the subject of Schiller’s Don Carlos), the arch-reactionary who carried on a hopeless struggle against the whole trend of history during the Counter-Reformation. Only eight years before Hitler’s Nazi party took power Cornelius calls the Protestant Reformation ‘the Germanic ideal of freedom and individual liberty’. (In Doctor Faustus, after the military and moral catastrophe of World War II, Mann associated Martin Luther with the devil.)
Rampant inflation has forced the Cornelius family to wear worn clothing, live in a house sadly in need of repairs, eat ersatz food, cheat to acquire precious eggs (at six thousand marks apiece) and make a desperately impossible effort, ‘in these desolate and distracted times’, to maintain their traditional middle-class values and manners. The change in economic status is matched by the transformation of social behaviour. The small children, by established custom, still descend from the nursery to make after-dinner calls on their parents. But even the stiff and formal Professor Cornelius, forced to make some concessions to the changing times, has reluctantly shaved off his pedantic pointed beard. He puts up with his older children’s pranks, including their distribution of his visiting cards in the neighbours’ letter boxes, which provokes a series of unexpected pro forma visits. He endures their hateful bohemian party with loud jazz records and rouged court actors (though there is no longer a court), who represent Mann’s familiar obsession, the ‘abnormality of the artist’.
Cornelius, extravagantly in love with the five year-old Ellie, defines the dominant mood of the story by observing that ‘all deep feeling conceals a melancholy strain’. His tenderness, his prose style, even his concept of justice are all called melancholy. He fears the loss of Ellie’s fully reciprocated love and suffers sympathetically when she suffers. He wants to make their precious emotional relations fixed forever like the coherent, disciplined and historic past that he carefully studies. Yet Ellie is part of the ever-changing historical process, the volatile present life that has not yet become the controllable past. Cornelius is astute enough to realise that there is ‘something not quite right’ about his intense feelings for his beloved daughter, about his longing to recover the deathly past instead of accepting the lively present: ‘His devotion to this priceless little morsel of life and new growth has something to do with death, it clings to death as against life; and that is neither right nor beautiful.’
Ellie’s crisis, her minor revolution, suddenly erupts in this political, economic, social and personal context. After eluding her oversensitive and easily-wounded father and dancing with one of the grown-up guests, the charming and well-mannered Max Hergesell (this dance scene is as important as the one in ‘Tonio Kröger’), the normally even-tempered Ellie bursts into convulsive sobbing and weeping. Cornelius, called to her room, notices that her nightgown has slipped seductively down from her shoulder. She has suddenly fallen in love with Max. Cornelius – ‘with his distressful horror of this passion, so hopeless and so absurd’, the very opposite of order – is absolutely unable to assuage her grief. The psychiatrist Robert Coles has noted how a child’s rage can also devastate adults: ‘a little girl’s hurt feelings can suddenly turn into unappeasable fury and can stimulate retaliatory anger, not to mention more chronic bitterness, anxiety and sadness.’
Max, summoned to calm the child, arrives like the swan knight Lohengrin and deftly quotes Shakespeare’s sonnet 30: ‘But if the while I think on thee, dear friend/All losses are restored and sorrows end.’ Max magically calms the little Lorelei, the Rhine water nymph who lured sailors to their doom, and sends her off to blissful sleep. Cornelius feels an uneasy mixture of gratitude, embarrassment for his own failure and jealous hatred of the young man who has so clearly supplanted him in Ellie’s affections.
The love triangle of Cornelius, Max and Ellie spans three generations. At the tender age of five she falls in love, like a hormone-driven teenager, and becomes prematurely estranged from her adoring father. Ellie’s outburst symbolises the struggle to free herself from her father’s overpowering love and oppressive control, her rejection of his outworn values and their childish games, and her desire to align herself with the older siblings. Ellie’s longing for Max parodies Cornelius’s idealised but tormented longing for Ellie, and reveals the emotional and intellectual limitations of her father, who can explain the past but cannot deal with the present. In Freudian terms, the story shows the dangerous currents of Ellie’s excessive love and of Cornelius’s apparently innocent but quasi-incestuous feelings, which are ‘not quite right’.
The story ends as Cornelius gazes down at the sleeping Ellie – calm of mind, all passion spent – the only one who can release his emotions and
allow him to unbend. He thinks, ‘Tomorrow, beyond all doubt, young Hergesell will be a pale shadow, powerless to darken her little heart. Tomorrow, forgetful of all but present joy’, she will dutifully return to her father. Yet there is no evidence that she will completely forget Hergesell, who has made such a profound emotional impact, and return to her old childhood innocence. Cornelius merely pretends to believe this to protect himself from even deeper wounds. His attempt to put Ellie’s sorrow firmly in the past is not only an act of self-deception but also an ironic reflection on the Germans’ inability to accept the realities of their radically changed world.