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Essay: Der Kleine Herr Friedemann

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  • Published: September 27, 2021*
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  • Der Kleine Herr Friedemann
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Der Kleine Herr Friedemann tells of the tragic, yet pitiful suicide of an impotent man, who suffers with a disability that has prevented his personal romantic desires. On the surface, Herr Friedemann, as the name suggests, is ‘at peace’ with himself, however this is merely a form of Ibsen’s ‘Lebenslüge’; he is constantly at odds with his reproachful nature, as a man who has forbid himself from loving, yet feels so emotionally drawn to Frau von Rinnlingen. There is an argument that Herr Friedemann’s death is foreshadowed after just four chapters; after the scene where he encounters his “plötzliche Neigung” kissing another man, he decides that he will never love again as this only causes him “Gram und Leid”. Herr Friedemann has been described as having ‘precarious epicureanism’ , which suggests, and somewhat validates, that his desires were subdued in order to obtain greatest ‘pleasure’, although his suppressed sexual passion does not lead to satisfaction, rather tragedy.

There appears to be something significantly ‘Apollonian and Dionysian’ about Herr Friedemann’s suicide. Moments before his death, his expresses his ultimate Dionysiac wish “sich zu vernichten [und] sich in Stücke zu zerreisen”, yet he is only able to “sich [schieben] noch weiter vorwärts [und] ins Wasser fallen”. This makes the suicide seem antithetical, to such an extent that Mann’s grave, dramatic free indirect style is pitifully undone by Herr Friedemann’s pathetic death. He can barely muster the strength to make it to the water; there is certainly no ‘dagger through the heart’ moment, not least an act of pathos that may lead the reader to sympathise with the fallen protagonist. Perhaps Herr Friedemann’s self-pitiful death is in keeping with the inner morality of his personality. His Apolline view of the arts, that appeals to the purity and melodrama of music, more specifically Wagner, is all part of a his ‘life sustaining lie’, as Frau von Rinnlingen discovers in the final chapter, such that his life as an ‘artist’ is in fact futile; shown fully by his self-destruction in the final Dionysiac moment of annihilation and self-disgust. I suppose this is the psychological paradox that causes Herr Friedemann such distress; T.J. Reed tells us that an artist’s “bacchantic howling only proves imcompetence”, who “merely vents [their feelings] in helplessly inarticulate sounds” . This seems to perfectly epitomise the character of Herr Friedemann, who drowns himself in water that is only deep enough to cover his face, leaving the rest of his body on the ground.

Mann’s narration of the final scene encompasses the Apollonian and Dionysian psychology of the protagonist as he commits suicide. The free indirect style of “was ging eigentlich in ihm vor, bei dem, was nun geschah?” is delivered with a critical, cold impassivity that destroys Herr Friedemann’s possibly ‘Wagnerian’ dream of a love towards Frau von Rinnlingen, and recapitulates in his almost grotesque, mental annihilation that appears in stark contrast to the ‘Wilhemine mundanity’1 in which the novel is set. Mann provides a compelling narrative from a distinctly extra-diegetic standpoint. This removes all form of sympathy from his narration and enables the novel to become an example of social impropriety and moral redundancy; how can Herr Friedemann expect that Frau von Rinnlingen will suddenly become adulterous in this social setting, and hence how is it possible that he cannot be aware of the fact that this romantic passion that he feels is incongruous. This Dionysiac attitude is what creates his internal chaos; what I mean by this is that Herr Friedemann search for pleasure is deeply irrational and ultimately causes his pain. Nietzsche described such fusion of Dionysiac and Apollonian psychologies as ‘Kunsttriebe’, or ‘artistic impulses’, which form the basis of tragedy. We are able to apply this to Herr Friedemann, as his mental struggle arises as a result of his apparent love for ‘Kunst’, or rather his Apollonian search for aesthetic beauty, coupled with his natural ‘Trieb’, a certain Dionysiac helplessness that is presented through his desperate self-destruction at the end of novel.

Mann may look to place Herr Friedemann’s suicide on nature, rather than an external factor, or the fault of Frau von Rinnlingen (she is certainly not to blame). The naturalist movement, that which Mann was a keen follower, grounded literature in scientific theory, whereby characterisation, hereditary disease, and psychology, are all linked by means of ‘biological determinism’. That is to say that Herr Friedemann’s fate is ultimately inevitable as a result of his degenerate life that he succumbs to, by being both physically and morally weaker. It is no coincidence that the hunchback he is fatefully given by the maid when he dropped in the first chapter, stunts his growth both in terms of stature and emotion. His misconstrued emotions therefore, tie in with his chaotic ‘Trieb’, that allows this naturalist, determinist work to ascertain an almost proleptic structure; Herr Friedemann anticipates and resolves potential problems, before they have even arisen; the finale tragically descends into an obdurate nihilistic dissection of his social misfortunes, that Mann presents through a naturalistic, fateful tone; an outsider’s voice that permeates through the free indirect style, commenting on what becomes, through Frau von Rinnlingen’s “kurzen, stolzen, verächtlichen Lachen”, a melodrama, that appeals to Mann’s sentimentality and emotionality as a writer.

We can extend the idea that Herr Friedemann’s suicide is more melodramatic entertainment than it is sincere, heartfelt narration, through the impact of Wagner on, not only the genre of ‘melodrama’, but also the work itself. ‘Music is of course an integral part of Mann’s aesthetics’ , above all in Wagner’s operas, which, while they were often grand and expressive, contained melodramatic features, or ‘leitmotifs’, that 19th Century authors derived into their works. When referring to Der Kleine Herr Friedemann, the term ‘Wagnerian’ is inherently contradictory to ‘melodrama’ unless we consider the plot itself. If we take an impotent young man, who tragically falls in love with a beautiful woman and ends up killing himself – this is the grand Wagnerian opera – whilst the ‘melodrama’ exists in the smaller moments, the crucial scenes of emotion and sentimentality, whereby narrative ‘leitmotif’ is used to underpin the drama. A key musical example would be Wagner’s epic musical drama Der Ring des Nibelungen, where melodramatic leitmotifs are employed to represent certain characters or situations; it is therefore possible to see Herr Friedemann’s suicide, particularly with the questioning free indirect style that reoccurs through the novel, as a melodramatic leitmotif. We could take this even further and say that Mann’s narrative variation, in terms of style, is his version of the leitmotif. For example, the questioning internal monologue of “was ging eigentlich in ihm vor, bei dem, was nun geschah?” is, in terms of narration, stated earlier in chapter 11, with “was sie nicht eine Frau und er ein Man?”. We may look a Mann’s narrative leitmotifs as a way in which he emphasises melodrama, without retracting from an overall serious, thought-provoking novel. Seeing Herr Friedemann’s death as melodramatic may explain why it is presented so pitifully, with the excessive grandeur that one might expect with the suicide in a Wagner opera or a Shakespearian play. An important comparison to make at this point is with Wagner’s perhaps most Wagnerian opera Tristan und Isolde. The final aria, located, symbolically, on the border of land and water, sees Isolde dramatically and emotively sing next to her dead husband in an act known as the ‘Liebestod’. Wagner’s music is climactic and grand and all that you would expect from such an emotionally-charged suicide. Mann is clearly influenced by this scene: Herr Friedemann feels this ‘Liebestod’ in a similar way to Isolde, although perhaps more within himself than for Frau von Rinnlingen, as he lies on the border of land and water, in an act staged almost as a direct parallel to Wagner’s opera. What is different however, is the narrative tone and style; Isolde dies with the audience reduced to tears, whilst Herr Friedemann’s death leaves the reader, if anything, more sympathetic towards Frau von Rinnlingen, as he dies so woefully. Even the internal audience within the novel make the “klang gedämpftes Lachen”, mocking the dead protagonist. One could argue that Herr Friedemann, leading back to the idea of naturalism, leans himself to a melodramatic suicide, as his cynicism warrants no sympathy from the reader; we are not emotionally attached in the way that we are to Isolde, perhaps owing to Herr Friedemann’s masochistic tendencies.

Freud theorised that ‘analysis of melancholia shows that ego can kill itself, if it is able to direct itself against the hostility of an object’ as a form of cathexis. We can apply this to Herr Friedemann through his fixation of Frau von Rinnlingen; he is often left melancholic, with Mann’s narration leading him towards the Freudian concept of the “Todestrieb”. We can allude this Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysiac theory presented earlier: Herr Friedemann’s ‘trieb’, his nature, or rather what fate has set out for him, leads him on a loveless life, that ultimately self-distructs in his suicide, despite his Apollonian attempts to realise the aesthetic beauty in the arts. Herr Friedemann is a masochist. Despite his incessant ‘lebenslüge’, he finds no real pleasure in the arts, as his ‘precarious epicureanism’ suggests, and in love he only sees “Gram und Leid”. It could be argued that he treats Frau von Rinnlingen as kind of deity on whom he ‘projects guilt and anger’ in the finale. Mann appears to explicitly affirm this through his seemingly only form of address being “Mein Gott!”, and through Frau von Rinnlingen apparent omniscience of his ‘lebenslüge’ of a false pretence at happiness. Herr Friedemann becomes so torn by guilty that he almost has no choice but to submit to the Dionysiac self-annihilation.

Herr Friedemann’s suicide, in conclusion, provides a fitting melodramatic end to an operatic novel. Mann’s narration fulfils the melodrama and allows for the characterisation of Herr Friedemann, as one who is torn by Nietzsche’s paradoxical Apollonian and Dionysiac ideals. He is led by his own ‘Trieb’, in search of either ‘Todes-’ or ‘Kunst-’, and this naturalistic basis is what prevails is Mann’s narrative. There is a sense that the suicide is inevitable from the second Herr Friedemann is dropped on the floor, which stunts his physical and emotional growth leaving him unable to process emotions correctly. However, this does not detract from the reader’s lack of empathy for the protagonist, and not least the internal audience; Frau von Rinnlingen perceives his confession as a sexual advance, and she merely runs off laughing, leaving no time for mourning. All in all, Mann’s depiction of suicide is rooted in melodrama, which he presents with great sentimentality, despite leaving a pitifully dead Herr Friedemann.


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