Hope from the Ashes: Kai Mölln and the Future of the Artist


Kai at Hanno’s bedside, a still from the 1959 German film of Buddenbrooks.

Scarcely forty pages from the end of Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann’s saga of a nineteenth century German merchant family, Kai Mölln sits at the back of a religion class, Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque open inside his Bible, ignoring the lesson and devouring The Fall of the House of Usher. Beside him, in the final stages of his life, sits Hanno Buddenbrook, last of the house of Buddenbrook, wasting away as strains of Wagner run on loop in his head. In this image of Hanno is encapsulated one of the great themes of Mann’s novel: the relation of the artist to illness. This relation will be brought to its apotheosis in Hanno’s final act: a wrenchingly beautiful improvisation on the piano to which he himself succumbs, allowing its beauty to sap him of his strength and end the Buddenbrook family line. However, what appears at first to be a straightforward problematic of artistry and illness going hand-in-gruesome-hand, is complicated when the picture is expanded to include the healthy Kai, his imagination firing at the contact with Poe and his tale of a family in decline. It is this somewhat peripheral character who, by the end of Mann’s novel, will take center stage to implement a balance between artistic temperament and physical self in order to provide a hope for the future.

Though art is present at the periphery of the novel from the beginning, the artist as a specific type enters the novel relatively late, with the arrival of Gerda into the Buddenbrook family. From the first, Gerda is associated with art, specifically music through her violin-playing, which her more practical-minded roommates condemn as “silly” (85) while still at school. When Tom writes his mother about his first meeting with Gerda in Amsterdam, he emphasizes that they connected over art, discussing Dutch painting and literature, and describing her violin performance with her father “almost [bringing] tears to one’s eyes” (282), despite his having no notion of music.

When Gerda comes to Lübeck, she is quite obviously an other, differing from Lübeck’s residents in both appearance and temperament, which almost immediately leads Thomas to feel he must defend her and his choice in wife. He tells Tony that Gerda is “an artist by nature—a unique, puzzling, ravishing creature” (296), using her artistic temperament to justify simultaneously his love for her and her difference from the family and the town. This description of his new wife immediately precedes her entrance into the room, whereupon she is described by the narrator as “tall, erect” with “bluish shadows brooding in the corners” (297) of her eyes—the second time already that these bluish shadows have been mentioned, though the first time, before their honeymoon, rather than “brooding,” they were “delicate” (286). Both of these mentions of her eyes, though delivered by the narrator, are closely aligned with Tom’s perspective: already his changing perception of Gerda’s artistic side is being reflected through the lens of her physical health. The at first neutrally described shadows have now taken on a life of their own, brooding—as befits the artist—on either side of her nose, establishing a link in his mind between the artistic temperament and the fragility of her physical state. With the introduction of her “artist’s nature” and the word “brooding,” there is dark potential in the shadows where before there was none.

We quickly come to realize, though, that while Gerda is closely connected to the artistic in the novel, and is particularly representative of the symbolic relation between physical illness and art, she is hardly an artist herself. Thomas cuts to the heart of her presence in the novel when he laments that “he stood before a temple, and Gerda stood at the threshold adamantly barring his way” (499). Gerda herself is merely a worshipper at the temple of art, not a high priestess. She guards it from those she deems philistines (Tom) and “disappear[s] inside” with Hanno. Her induction of Hanno into the world of music and art is symbolized in the “bluish shadows” round the eyes, present in him from the age of four weeks, and already linked to artistic tendency (388). Gerda herself, however, is content merely to perform the art of others.¹ She is not an artist; she does not create. Whereas Hanno loves nothing more than to improvise and lose himself in the music, letting it consume him, Gerda prefers to learn and to study it—both of which Hanno proves less than brilliant at.

Music according to Gerda and Herr Pfühl is something which can be broken down and understood, studied, subjected to reason, and reconstructed. “Edmund Pfühl. . . spoke disdainfully of beautiful melodies” (486) associated with the “new music” of Wagner which captivate Hanno. Though Pfühl has a gaze called (with gentle mockery) “his musician’s gaze,” he is not himself a musician, but rather a teacher and analyst, his “musician’s gaze” being a pose thought suitable to the playing. Even once the “new music” begins to waken a “growing irresistible attachment” (489) in him, he persists in holding a discussion after playing about the relation of the new music to the old.

This experience of music, though it inspires awe in young Hanno, is not the experience of the artist, but the cognoscente. For Hanno to break down and analyze his ecstatic experiences with music—such as that of his first performance for his family or his final improvisation—would be impossible; he could not separate himself from the music anymore than he could stem the flow or alter it consciously. In this way, music is also profoundly personal for Hanno, whereas for his mother, the fundamental experience of music seems not to be the music itself, but the sharing of it: she first appears performing duets with her father and her one wish throughout the course of the novel is to visit Amsterdam in order to play duets with him once more (when Tom and Hanno have both died, this is exactly what she does). She is never seen in the novel performing on her own, but instead always with Herr Pfühl, Hanno, or Lieutenant von Throta. For her, music is duet. Hanno’s fundamentally personal, almost solipsistic, experience of music during which all else falls away combined with his impulse towards creation are what make him an artist, while his mother remains merely possessed of an artistic temperament.

Indeed, Hanno has more in common with his father than his mother as far as his artistic temperament goes. For Thomas himself is an artist (though taken for a philistine by his wife, who never really bothers to get to know him too well (498)), though one so thwarted and repressed that he is hardly recognizable as one. As a young man, he reads Goethe and that “brash and frail poet” Heine  (717)—a description which once again intimately links art with illness—and while in Pau on a rest cure, he becomes enamored of “certain modern writers who specialized in satire and polemics” (231), for which his business-minded father condemns him.

When he becomes head of the family, Tom feels that he must rid himself of these vain tendencies which he sees (as do the rest of his society) as incompatible with being a good businessman, causing the conflict which destroys him. Even so, Tom occasionally bursts forth with language more akin to poetry than anything else, as when, standing with Tony in the Temple of the Sea, he observes “Broad the waves … ah, see them surging, watch them breaking, every surging, ever breaking, on they come in endless rows, bleak and pointless, filled with woes” (648). That the rhythm and rhyme he achieves here capture the sound and movement of waves and yet that the line is set down in prose signals a poetic temperament trapped in the prose of every-day experience. It’s no mistake, either, that Mann places this poetic outburst in a place called a temple, recalling Tom’s earlier vision of Gerda barring him from the temple of art as she disappears inside with Hanno. Thomas, just like Hanno, belongs in the temple, whether or not he himself or Gerda believes he does.

Thus, as hard as Tom works to cultivate his mask of practical, serious, dignity and respectability, cracks sometimes appear, revealing a potential for and tendency towards artistic creation. It is precisely because Tom recognizes in himself these tendencies that he fears that Gerda’s influence will lead Hanno astray. Tom sees in Hanno what he recognizes in himself and has always fought to keep in check. At first it might seem that this repression of self is the source of Tom’s physical illnesses, but remembering that early on—before the onset of his responsibilities—he was sick enough to go to Pau, it becomes apparent that the connection is not between his repression and illness (though this would naturally exacerbate the problem), but illness and artistic temperament.

Art, then, threatens life. It becomes easy to blame art, alongside Thomas, for the sickening of the body Buddenbrook; after all, there was no tendency towards art (beyond Herr Hoffestede’s occasional lyrics) in the first generation of Buddenbrooks and the closest the second got was religion. The third, where everything begins to go wrong, has not one, but two “artistic temperaments”: Thomas the artist and Christian the poseur, the artist manqué, dissolute and psychosomatically ill as a result of art’s existence, not because he himself is an artist. Christian simply believes in the same connection his brother does (and of which Tom is a sort of proof) and manifests the symptoms of that belief. By the time we reach the last Buddenbrook and he turns out to be a pale, sickly weakling with a head full of music, the case appears closed: art ruined the Buddenbrooks, in every sense of the word. Correlation and causation appear to agree.

Mann, however, does have one spanner to throw in the works: little Count Mölln. He, too, is an artist and yet he seems to contradict everything the novel has suggested about art, illness, and their relation. Kai, like Hanno, comes from a family in decline, but Kai’s family has already reached decline’s final stage. If history operates in cycles, Kai’s family is one cycle ahead of the Buddenbrooks. But far from being preternaturally sickly as Hanno is, the young count is like a “wild animal” full of a “vitality,” “ruggedness,” and “impetuous, aggressive manliness” which are so absent in his friend (505, 508). Indeed, it is precisely because he hopes that Kai might help to “stimulate manliness” in Hanno that Thomas allows their friendship.

And yet, Kai is an artist and a potentially successful one at that. He is unusual in the novel not only because he survives it (and, what’s more, shows no signs of illness by the end), but because he has a future beyond the last page of the book. Of all the characters mentioned in and still amongst the living by the closing chapter, Kai is the only male and the only one with a future ahead of him. Tony is doomed to an existence of lamenting the fall of the Buddenbrooks; Erika, used to disappointment, will presumably occupy herself with her daughter (who goes unmentioned); Klothilde, Sesame, the three sisters Buddenbrook, and old Madame Kröger are all doomed to go on just as they had been—one wonders whether the decline of the family really had any effect on them at all. But Kai is outside all this, full of energy, without a demerit to hold him back at Easter, and in the midst of pursuing his goal of becoming a writer.

Kai’s role as an artist is easy to overlook: not only does he enter the novel late, but he is healthy and happy, which, in the logic of Mann’s universe, would appear to preclude him from the life of the serious artist. His foremost role is that of friend and foil to Hanno: energy where he is exhaustion, life where he is death, courage where he is timidity. It is easy to forget that at the base of their friendship is a shared interest in art. From a young age, they sit in Hanno’s room and collaborate, their respective arts set equal: Kai weaves stories of a “reality bathed in a strange and mysterious light” while Hanno provides dramatic accompaniment on his harmonium (507, 605). Later on, further confirmation comes of the similarity in merit and scope of their arts when, during religion class, Kai occupies himself with reading Edgar Allan Poe as next to him Hanno “recall[ed] the grail leitmotif or the ‘Wedding March,’” so that he would “feel sobs welling up deep inside” (692). We are never allowed inside the young count’s head, nor do we hear his work firsthand, and so do not know for certain the degree to which his art moves or affects him, but the setting of his reading next to Hanno’s intense feeling for music indicates parallel magnitudes of personal significance, particularly in a novel which so often relies on its spatial organization to generate meaning.

It is certain enough to say that the art of Kai Mölln is far more closely related to the artistic genius coursing through Hanno than to the mincing lines of Herr Hoffstede at the novel’s opening. Final confirmation of Kai’s art does come, though, in his penultimate line: “I know what you’re thinking when you improvise” (716), he says, where follows a silence during which Hanno “looked pale and very serious” (716). In a world in which Hanno is only ever misunderstood, this quiet, straightforward assertion of comprehension is almost too much for him. It’s clearly too much for Kai, who gets embarrassed and looks away. But Kai understands because he, too, has felt it, the pain of creation, of beauty, the reason behind Hanno’s saying improvising—that is creating— “makes everything worse” (716).

What then are we to make of this happy, hale, and potentially successful artist set against the suffocating Thomas and withering Hanno? Looking to the novel’s end and its cloying, static last platitude-filled chapter, it would seem that if we are not to believe in Kai as a hope for the future, then we are to believe that the book is fundamentally pessimistic, that it believes in art as a self-destructive force, and survival only possible by means of becoming a Tony Buddenbrook. It is important that, though Kai is mentioned in the last chapter, he is not present: his future awaits him and he has gone out to meet it—out of the book. He has escaped the fate of the Buddenbrooks and apparently the fate of the artist.

That Kai is spared this fate is no happy accident, but rather the result of his particular relation to the world. Kai’s world, like the world of his stories, is a “reality bathed in a strange and mysterious light,” a world indirectly linked to the fabric of reality and supplemented with threads of fiction. Kai looks upon the world he inhabits not as a thing which he must fit into, as Hanno and Tom do, but a thing which he must fit together. In his eyes, people become characters identified by certain physical aspects or mannerisms (“Lord God”), everyday actions become the dramatic gestures of fiction (as when he kisses repeatedly Hanno’s hands at his death), and he himself can be the hero of a separate story of his own making.

Even Hanno, to him, is a character, simultaneously real and surreal. Reading The Fall of the House of Usher, Kai is struck by Roderick Usher, finding him “the most marvelous character ever invented” (695) and it isn’t long before he makes the connection between the Buddenbrooks and the Ushers. “Pastor Pringsheim said … that I came from a degenerate family” (715) Hanno tells Kai, who reacts immediately to the final two words, “paying close attention now” (715). There is no doubt in the reader’s mind that the “idea for a wonderful story” (716) Kai has immediately following this exchange dramatizes Hanno’s (or perhaps Christian’s) situation, casting him as the Roderick Usher in the Fall of the House of Buddenbrook, a part Mann had had set out for him from the very first.²

Thus, rather than simply having a generative, creative power as Hanno does or like Tom displays the seeds of, Kai exists in a generative space, whose importance is emphasized in the description of Kai’s first finished story, which is “set deep within the earth’s most sacred workshops, where ores and mysterious embers glowed, but at the same time within the human soul, so that in some strange way the primal forces of nature and of man’s soul were blended, altered, transformed, and refined” (696). Here we see Kai working out the metaphysics of his own artistic existence: reconciling creation and creative power with his self, his self with the world around him. That he does it in Wagnerian language only further highlights his parallel to Hanno and Hanno’s improvisations in Wagner’s musical language, further underlining Kai’s role not only as foil, but as alternative.

However, it is not simply this creative capacity and generative space which allow Kai to escape unscathed; in order to form them Mann highlights again and again, particularly in contrast to Hanno, that Kai has courage. Whereas Hanno conceptualizes beauty as “painful … gnaw[ing] away at your courage and fitness for daily life” (680), Kai does not feel beauty and creation as reduction but as an emboldening with which to tailor his reality. Little Hanno lives life in constant retreat, forever wishing himself out of things—wishing for it to be “one of those nights when he was lying in bed with a sore throat and a slight fever” (476) when Ida would care for him and he need do absolutely nothing.

Nothing could be further from Kai’s outlook on life, which is so inherently bold and optimistic that he can’t take seriously Hanno’s confession that “I can’t be anything. I’m afraid of the whole idea. … I just want to go to sleep and not have to deal with it. I want to die” (715). Instead, he tells Hanno to “stop it” and not to be so “gloomy,” a trite word for Hanno’s deep expressions of depression. Hanno is right when he connects Kai’s inability to understand to his having “more courage” (715). The difference Hanno points to is evident right to the end as Kai “forc[es] his way into the room where Hanno lay” (730), the symbol of action coming immediately upon the heels of Hanno’s supreme non-action as he “shies from [life]” (726). That Kai is the only survivor with a future stretching out before him at the end of the novel, the artist in him unharmed, comes down to the courage with which he faces life in its beauty and its ugliness and his ability to channel that courage productively into the creation of his own world.³

In Kai, Mann offers hope for a future (and a much more definitive hope than that of Sesame’s defiant and ludicrous “It is so!” (731)) in the wake of the great decline of the Buddenbrooks and specifically hope for art in the future. Kai, inhabiting as he does a many-layered world of reality, fiction, and symbolism, is the harbinger of a new kind of art, of literature, which will usher in a new age and a new way of being.*

  1. And she does so; she is a veritable Nero fiddling away atop her tower apart while the flames of the Buddenbrook family rise about the ramparts.
  2. One wonders whether Kai weren’t first attracted to Hanno all those years before simply because he cut such a character—the sort one might find in a book.
  3. Kai is not the only character with courage in the novel; simply the only character with both courage and generative power. The only Buddenbrook to whom the word courage can really be applied is Tony—incidentally also the only non-artistically inclined of the declining Buddenbrooks. Tony, whatever her faults, has the courage to make choices. She chooses to subjugate herself to her ideal of the family in marrying Grünlich; she chooses to throw her reputation to the wind in divorcing him. Tony is alone when she make the decision to marry Grünlich; she has resisted the arguments of her parents and now, alone with the book, she submits to an argument of her own fashioning. When she chooses, she does so boldly: she “grab[s]” the pen, “plunge[s]” it into the ink, and full of “eager movement” she commits herself in her own hand (155-156). In contrast, Thomas, as he grows older, becomes paralyzed by his inability to make decisions and hold to them, while Christian lives in constant hypochondriacal fear of every potentiality.
  4. Ironically, this ember of hope is himself the product of decline—a phoenix born from the ashes of a previous cycle, in which the old aristocratic families (like Count von Maiboom, in the course of the novel) were left to decay by the wayside.


Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks. Trans. John E. Woods. Vintage: New York. 1993.



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