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Hermes. The Invisible Aspect of Classical Literature
Here he comes, the god of wanderings and tidings...
— R. M. Rilke, "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes"
The correspondence between Thomas Mann and Karl Kerenyi about myth and humanism, as both correspondents note on more than one occasion, represents a "mythic event" as well as a "spiritual humanistic" one. It would also be possible to speak of it as an attempt at a political event because, in the words of Thomas Mann, "politics itself is nothing more than ethics of the spirit without which the latter disintegrates."1 I need not remind you that in those years, the years of the ascent of Nazi ideology, myth was the most topical political reality. Yes, such was the political hope of both correspondents: the "return of the European spirit to the loftiest mythic realities."2 In other words, looking from a different angle, from the point of view of myth, they call their project the "humanization of myth."

Why precisely are these two things taken as opposite poles: spirit and myth? "What is exemplarily passed on (or: "passed on as an example" — das musterhaft Überlieferte) — this is precisely authentic myth in its historical meaning — comes from the depths lying below, and it is that, which binds us. But "I" is from God, and it belongs to the spirit, which is free. A truly educated life is one that fills up the soil that binds us and passes along to us a model of the divine, a free "I," and there cannot be human education without the first (that is, myth or legend) and without the second (that is, the spirit of personal freedom)."3 Let us note in this formula of the "humanistic equilibrium" of Thomas Mann the theme of upbringing and good manners. Kerenyi, who undertook the publication of the correspondence, reports that he does it in view of the educational significance contained in it. Humanism is generally unimaginable without its educational, pedagogical perspective that represents its dominant, if you will. After all, for classical humanism man is not born as man: he is required to become such, and not everyone does. Only the homo humanus, an educated person and one who does not stop to educate oneself, enters the "humankind" of humanism. As for myth, it, in its turn, also suggests that in order to become human it is not enough to be born once, biologically, a second birth is necessary. For this threshold, a word of another semantic — or stylistic — register, compared to education, would be more appropriate: an ordination or initiation.

Thus, a cultural, historical, and political exit from the dead-end choice between the "dark myth" of neo-barbarism (which calls itself neo-traditionalism) and the separation from the depths and power of the natural broadness of "free" humanism should open up in the equilibrium of spirit and myth, in other words, and speaking in a completely simplistic way, between enthusiasm (as they would say nowadays, passionarity), depth, and the "poetry" of fascism and skepticism, superficiality, and the prose of liberalism, between two catastrophes. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Later we will clarify the meaning of the "spirit" and "spirituality" in the Thomas Mann — Karl Kerenyi usage, which is so unusual for the Russian reader. "Humanism," the meaning of which is self-evident for both interlocutors, but totally differs from the common use of this word in the Russian language, which is vague and emotional, requires commentary — it is vague first of all because there has been no humanism in Russian history.4

Thus, this correspondence is, itself, a kind of myth. This epistolary humanistic "myth" has its hero (because, as Kerenyi remarks, there is not "just a myth": myth is necessarily a myth about something). This hero is Hermes, an image that in a strange way is mysteriously familiar to both: to the writer Thomas Mann, whom Kerenyi calls "Doctor Hermeticus" and to the scholar of myth Karl Kerenyi. Hermes plays out his new story in the space between them, as it befits a messenger-god, a messenger who connects many polar opposites. The presence of Hermes lets itself be known not only there where they speak of him, about a third God, or the God of a third (thus, Kerenyi warns that the "theme of Hermes" in Thomas Mann's works can not be reduced to the list of his Hermes-like characters, a huge list, we must note, from Tadzio "The Death in Venice" to Felix Krull).5 The "Hermetic" element permeates the thought of the interlocutors. It can be recognized first of all in the theme of connections or relationships (Beziehung), that interests both, starting from the "predestined kinship" of the correspondents themselves: the deeply intuitive artist who developed in himself a "cold," reflexive, distancing element (the one that Thomas Mann properly calls "spiritual") and the scholar in whom the studied meaning (historical, cultural, and mythological) responds by "not only the conscious also by the unconscious in the essence of the interpreter,"6 that is, that organ of participation with his own material, with which not a scholar but an artist works.

Myth and humanism; nature and spirit; a-temporal, existing in images (Gestalt), and transient; sacred and profane; seriousness and playfullness … — each of these key words of the correspondence requires a commentary, but, meanwhile, another thing is important: the effort of the interlocutors to connect, to place in a relationship all these poles of antitheses in the spirit of Hermes, the psychopomp, the guide to the underworld, and the shepherd of souls, a deity amicable toward men (philanthropotatos). The central and many times repeated calendar point of our epistolary plot — the night of the solstice in the interval between Christmas and the New Year, the "time of the cosmic turn, the natural point equilibrium, the point of exhalation and holding one's breath"7 — is a quite hermetic moment. It is deeply experienced ("at that time you feel like writing only to those closest to you," Kerenyi notes) and is clearly reflected upon by the interlocutors, that is, the very treatment of it is hermetic.

Kerenyi maintains that in his correspondence with Mann, they, for a "time, managed to overcome the Nietzschean dualism of Apollonian and Dionysian elements. The hermetic, Kerenyi warns, should not be confused with Mann's symbol of Hermes with the degraded, Gnostic, or alchemic one; Hermes is not connected to "hermetism" as a movement in modern poetry; the hermetic in the ancient mythological meaning appears as the desired third element that abrogates the hopeless and by that time stilted contrast between the "enlightened and rational" (Apollonianism) and the "ecstatically nocturnal" (Dionysianism).

Was it really for the first time? The great shadow of the hermetic artist and hermetic person — Goethe — overshadows the correspondence. (By the way, the night of solstice is Goethe's time, Goethe's kairos). The positive, "exemplary" presence of Goethe turns out in the end to be more essential for the historical conversation in letters than the polemics with colleagues (for Kerenyi it is the classical academician Wilamowitz,8 for Mann — irrationalists such as Lawrence9 or Klagens10). Goethe (and both interlocutors agree on that), who "accomplished a jump from literature to myth," with his profound sense of symbols, his proteism, his vivacity, and depth (as though he were Socrates and Alkiviades from Holderlin's verses in one person: "Who knew what is the deepest, loves what is the liveliest, / And the wise man will bow to honor the beauty" — note the tormented unrequited love of the "profound" Tonio Kroger for the "simple life"); Goethe who visited the darkness of Pythian madness and was, at the same time, a friend of reason; Goethe, the favorite of the sky and the earth, blessed by light-heartedness (Frohnatur) and fatherly solidity; was the most hermetic figure of the European legend. Mann's favorite formula of art — "the serious game" — is undoubtedly a quote from Goethe. In Goethe's aphoristic quatrain, das ernste Spiel, "game," is rhymed with viel, "many": "No one thing alive is alone, it is always many" (Kein Lebendiges ist ein Eins, Immer ist’s ein Viel). The "revelation of Hermes" consists precisely in discovering plural mobility, the game11, in place of some "final meaning" and "final word." 12 We can add that the features of a hermetic artist can be noted in Pushkin (who is clearly not discussed by Mann and Kerenyi and hardly known to them) and in his image of Mozart. Generally speaking, not being totally unknown in the history of the New Time, the hermetic image of an artist was never prevailing. One of its distinguishing features, besides the famous proteism and the original "non-wholeness" ("Until a poet is called for..."), could be the good will and respect for the form, to everything ordinary and common — "a nice fellow such as you and I, such as the whole world" — this is something that you can not find either in the Apollonian or the Dionysian geniuses.

As for the "hermetic scholar," it is much more difficult to find a precedent here.13


The complete article is published in: Olga Sedakova. Freedom to believe: philosophical and cultural essays. Bucknell University Press, 2010. We are grateful to the Publishing house Bucknell University Press for the permission to use the fragment of the book on this site.
Translated by Slava I. Yastremski

1 Thomas Mann Kultur und Politik (1939), 297.

2 All references to the correspondence are given from the following edition: Thomas Mann — Karl Kerenyi Gespracb in Briefen, Zurich: Rhein-Verlag, 1960, 12. Further referenced as Correspondence.

3 Correspondence, 24.

4 I have in mind humanism in its narrow, that is, strictly historical meaning: renovatio studiorum, before anything else the humanitarian learning in the area ol the Roman and Greek antiquity, which develops the culture of a critical, "objective" treatment of texts and meanings, and the respect for the human individual as the subject of such ability of judgment and its clear expression. Criticism as culture was never developed in Russian independently and, generally speaking, remains until now incomprehensible in its essence. Its fruits — the modern sciences and Enlightenment — were adopted and developed, but the position of independent thought, when it was adopted by the Russian "progressives," was transformed in their rendition into parodic cynicism and ugly escapades of eighteenth-century "dandies" or the freethinkers of Leskov and Dostoevsky in the nineteenth century. Freedom of opinion as a culture with its own rules and logic and not self-willed troublemaking; as independence and not sedition — that is what had remained unknown. One of the contemporary European scholars of Russian culture has noted that its entire originality is in the fact that there was no classical antiquity in Russia. It is not quite right: no one had classical antiquity but the ancient Greeks and Romans. But in some sense it is justifiable: Russia did not have its own, that is, a second humanistic antiquity. Usually, speaking about the "features of humanism" (for example, in the time of Andrei Rublev) or about the "humanism of Dostoevsky," people have in mind the vague meaning of the "presence of the personal element" in the first case, and the "love for man" — in the second. Nothing that would connect these usages with the characteristic nature of the classical humanists like Erasmus of Rotterdam can be found here. The "Hellenism" of Russian culture of which Mandelstam writes is something different that did not go through the doors of humanism.

5 In his memorial speech for Thomas Mann's sixtieth birthday, Kerenyi calls him "Doctor Hermeticus," "whose works and very essence are the revelation of this deity" (Correspondence, 14).

6 Correspondence, 31.

7 Ibid, 92.

8 Speaking about his break with the school of U. von Wilamowitz-Meyendorf (see U. von Wilamowitz-Meyendorf Der Glaube der Hellenen, B. 1, 2, 3 Aufl. Basel 1959), Kerenyi has in mind his desire to continue the "geological" and not objective academic study of antiquity, which was started by W. F. Otto.

9 D.H. Lawrence is famous for his "apology for the flesh," for which he uses the myth of "sacred marriage." There is a discussion of his Glastonbury Romance (1933) in the correspondence.

10 Ludwig Klagens (1872—1956), with his calls for contemporary mankind to "save the soul from the spirit," to be cured of spirit as of the "sickness of the century," returning to an initial, naive, uninhibited state through Dionysian ecstasy, "cosmogonic eros" and "rhythm" (see for example, Ludwig Klagens Vom Wesen des Rhythmus (1944), Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele (1954), and others), was naturally alien to Thomas Mann. However, the very opposition of the soul (life, rhythm) and the spirit (reason that investigates the primary elements) quite closely corresponds to that of Mann and originates in Nietzsche. How was this notion of spirit that is completely alien to the Christian tradition (where the spirit — the Holy Ghost — is not only juxtaposed to life but also is its source: "the Spirit gives life") formed? Nevertheless, it is persistent, and not only in the Germanic tradition (see Vasily Rozanov).

11 We do not have to clarify that we are speaking here not about the dreary "game" that postmodernism offers — the game of give away or the card game of "the fool" — and not about the "educational games" of modern education. Such a game, in which in some sense there is more than seriousness because in it there is the fulfillment of existence, its full fullness in which it no longer lacks anything, was wonderfully described by Boris Pasternak, playing with the richness of Russian phraseology:

How much courage you need
To play for ages,
The way ravines play,
The way a river plays,
The way diamonds play,
The way wine plays,
The way it is destined sometimes
For us to play to the fullest,
The way a young girl played
For the common folk
In her striped white dress
And long plaited braid.

Another name for this game is beauty because for both one condition is required: courage. "But the root of beauty is courage."

12 See a completely different image of the game as service in The Book of Hours by Rilke: Das ist wundersame Spiel der Kräfte / dass sie so dienend durch die Dinge gehn: in Wurzeln wachsend, schwinded in die Schäfte / und in den Wipfeln wie ein Aufersteben" (Here is the wonderful play of Forces, those that so service-like go through things: growing in the roots, disappearing in trunks and in treetops like the Resurrection").

13 See the definition of science in Kerenyi: "Science has that peculiarity that it does not exist and is not really present: essentially Science just happens (geschieht). Everything else is already a skill, techne" (Umgang, 152). But this is the way people usually talk about art or philosophy that depend on insight!
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