Thomas Mann’s “Mario and the Magician”

I’ve lately been introducing myself to some of the stories of Thomas Mann. One of them is a parable about fascism that contains some insightful observations about the psychology of totalitarianism.

The story “Mario and the Magician” concerns a family that is vacationing in an Italian beach town when they go to see an itinerant stage magician. The magician is more of a hypnotist than a conjurer or illusionist. He works his magic by using uncanny powers of suggestion to get members of the audience to do things.

The magician, Cipolla, is kind of repulsive: his stage presence is rude, he is slightly deformed and wears a ridiculous hair style and a pretentious sash, and he smokes and drinks throughout his performance. But despite this, he mesmerizes his audience by in turns insulting them and complementing them, and finally inducing them to do strange things largely by suggesting to them that they’re things they really wanted to do all along anyway.

One subject in particular submits to being commanded “against his will” to do one ridiculous thing after another. Mann writes of him:

He seemed quite content in his abject state, quite pleased to be relieved of the burden of voluntary choice. Again and again he offered himself as a subject and gloried in the model facility he had in losing consciousness. … It looked unmistakably like enjoyment, and other recruits were not long in coming forward…

(German, like some other languages, has had some ambiguity in using the same word — Gewissen — to mean both “consciousness” and “conscience.” The modern word for consciousness — Bewusstsein — is an invention. I haven’t able to track down which word Mann used in this section; though “losing consciousness” doesn’t seem to fit what is happening very well, “losing conscience” sounds weird in English and would probably be replaced by “relinquishing self-control” or some such.)

The scene that most stood out to me was one in which Cipolla instructs the audience to find some item, while his back is turned, and carefully pass it from person to person, with the last one hiding it on his or her person, whereupon Cipolla will turn around and — using his uncanny powers — discover the object:

He sat smoking at the rear of the stage, his back to the audience while they conferred. The object passed from hand to hand which it was his task to find, with which he was to perform some action agreed upon beforehand. Then he would start to move zigzag through the hall, with his head thrown back and one hand outstretched, the other clasped in that of a guide who was in the secret but enjoined to keep himself perfectly passive, with his thoughts directed upon the agreed goal. Cipolla moved with the bearing typical in these experiments: now groping upon a false start, now with a quick forward thrust, now pausing as though to listen and by sudden inspiration correcting his course. The roles seemed reversed, the stream of influence was moving in the contrary direction, as the artist himself pointed out, in his ceaseless flow of discourse. The suffering, receptive, performing part was now his, the will he had before imposed on others was shut out, he acted in obedience to a voiceless common will which was in the air. But he made it perfectly clear that it all came to the same thing. The capacity for self-surrender, he said, for becoming a tool, for the most unconditional and utter self-abnegation, was but the reverse side of that other power to will and to command. Commanding and obeying formed together one single principle, one indissoluble unity; he who knew how to obey knew also how to command, and conversely; the one idea was comprehended in the other, as people and leader were comprehended in one another. But that which was done, the highly exacting and exhausting performance, was in every case his, the leader’s and mover’s, in whom the will became obedience, the obedience will, whose person was the cradle and womb of both, and who thus suffered enormous hardship. Repeatedly he emphasized the fact that his lot was a hard one — presumably to account for his need of stimulant and his frequent recourse to the little glass.

All this reminds me of Arne Johan Vetlesen’s assertion in Evil and Human Agency that, contrary to the generous assumptions of Stanley Milgram, authority doesn’t coerce people into doing evil things they would otherwise oppose, but it permits people to do evil things they have been waiting for an excuse to perform. That, and Tolstoy’s observation that the intoxication of servility is the flip-side of the intoxication of power.