Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: Thomas Mann's "The Black Swan"

Published in 1954, The Black Swan would sadly be one of Thomas Mann's final works, and in the past few decades, it's garnered significant attention from feminist scholars. The Black Swan is often described as the feminine counterpart to A Death in Venice, but that diminishes the complexity of the slim novella, and most particularly, the radicality of its hyper-frank portrayal of a post-menopausal woman's sexual urges and gynecological medical problems. Though squeamishness about women's reproductive processes, especially menstruation, is less than it was, it's still very much present and it's possible for a modern reader to access the level of shock with which contemporary literary critics, the vast majority male, met Mann's novella. I'm undecided as to whether or not I would classify the novella as feminist, though it is undoubtedly of great interest to feminists.

The Black Swan, in a brief hundred and forty pages, details Rosalie von Tuemmler's post-menopausal infatuation with her son's American tutor. This May-December forbidden romance is what usually draws comparisons with A Death in Venice and that element is important, but it's not preeminent. Or perhaps it's better to say that framing the story in this wise dismisses how radical the actual framing of the novella is. Rosalie is a widow with two children, a grown daughter who is an intellectual abstract artist and a teenage son. In opposition to her daughter's intellectualism and rational approach to life, Rosalie worships at the altar of "Nature," in her eyes a sort of pseudo-deistic concept that is both expressed by the natural world, its trees, flowers, streams, etc. and cultivated by elevated appreciation for itself. Her passion for Ken, decades younger than she, is a renaissance, a reflowering, of her womanhood, which she sees radically expressed as a recurrence of what she believes to be a menstrual period. Both she and her daughter, however, are aware that this passion, though described often as love, is explicitly sexual rather than romantic: "'Oh, Anna, my loyal child, I indulge in lust, shameful and grievous lust, in my blood, in my wishes, and I cannot give it up..." Further, when Anna tentatively points out the obstacles to a marriage between two people that could be mother and son, Rosalie is almost amused, saying, "the idea is new to me... I can assure you that I do not entertain it." It would be disingenuous to say that such a plot was typical in its treatment of an older woman.

The most salient aspect of Rosalie's love is precisely that it actually has very little to do with the man himself. She dwells on his body above all else, though she also indulges him in his interest for European history. Through Anna's eyes, we see how unremarkable a person he is; through Rosalie's, what a desirable male specimen. This is one of the reasons why the novella is radical - because Rosalie is given the latitude, typically granted to male protagonists and much more rarely (though increasingly) to nubile young women, to love passionately and lustfully, objectifying the the man she desires and imbuing him with the qualities she would most like him to have. There is no ridicule, no judgement, no censure - it's eminently natural that Rosalie should feel and express carnal desire. The obstacles are social, but not fundamental. Such an attitude is remarkable for a book written in the 1950s (though it is set in the relative liberality of the Weimar Republic) and even more so coming from a male author.

In fact, Rosalie doesn't know Ken well at all. The vast majority of their conversations and meetings take place in the presence of others and it isn't until the crucial revelatory moment that the two of them actually acknowledge the possibility of a sexual affair. The relationship that is examined most minutely is not between Rosalie and her lover, but between Rosalie and her daughter. This is a radical re-imagining of a woman's romantic entanglements, as one negotiated between two women who are not romantically involved. As a result, female characters are constantly in the foreground, far more fleshed out than any of the male characters.

Menstruation and gynecological health are both treated at length in the book as well. Rosalie sees in her misunderstood vaginal bleeding a resuscitation of her lost youth, a "victory" - "I am a woman again, a whole human being again, a functioning female, I can feel worthy of the youthful manhood that has bewitched me..." Before this bleeding, Rosalie grapples desperately with the feeling of having been discarded, of having been demoted permanently to a worthless existence. This attitude towards middle-aged and older women still has significant currency and it would be utopian to summarily reject Rosalie's intense identification of her menstrual cycle with her value as a human being. In a world in which a woman's value is primarily sexual and reproductive, such an idea is at the very least emotionally valid. Nevertheless, for readers today, this potent identification of menstruation with personhood feels less acceptable and less stringently heeded by the larger, if still patriarchal, culture.

Is my reluctance to label The Black Swan feminist a sub-conscious prejudice, a disinclination to grant the label to a work written by a man? Or, am I reacting more to the ambiguity and nuance within the work, leery of labeling it so when it is so difficult to parse out where to draw the line between Rosalie's and Mann's views on the wholeness of a woman being dependent on menstruation? I actually think that my reluctance is a result of the novella's conclusion; thus, those who wish to avoid "spoilers" (though I do think it's silly) shouldn't read the rest of this review. In the final part of the novella, it's discovered that Rosalie's vaginal bleeding is in fact a symptom of metastasized uterine cancer and the brutal last pages gruesomely detail, from the surgeon's point of view, the state of her reproductive organs. This revelation - that Rosalie's resurgence of sexual vitality is in fact the sign of her impending demise - was read by critics in the 1950s as a metaphor for the collapse of the Weimar Republic. I think, rather, that what I dislike about the ending is its inability to allow Rosalie her little bit of pleasure. It feels almost as though she were being punished for daring to want to be young again, to have a chance at the sexual satisfaction she didn't get in her marriage. I don't ultimately accept this interpretation however. Utopian narratives that satisfy feminist wishes for what ought to be reality are no more feminist than realistic narratives that place very real obstacles in the way of female protagonists. Despite the misery of such a devastating cancer, Rosalie dies well, and content, for she says, "for me [death] borrowed the guise of resurrection, of the joy of love, that was not a lie, but goodness and mercy." This is a remarkably optimistic ending, a generous and appreciative gratitude for what happiness was granted her. She feels no self-pity, she feels no need to apologize or demur or obscure what she felt for its "unseemliness." I'm inclined to think my reluctance to label The Black Swan a feminist work can be charged to my own prejudice, for it continues to reveal new layers of empathetic understanding for its heroine.

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