Mars recounts the author's reminiscences and the self-analysis he undertook after the diagnosis of cancer. The book was accepted for publication just before he died at age 32.am young and rich and educated, and I'm unhappy, neurotic, and alone. I come from one of the very best families on the east shore of Lake Zurich, the shore that people call the Gold Coast. My upbringing has been middle-class, and I have been a model of good behaviour all my life. My family is somewhat degenerate, and I assume that I am suffering not only from the influences of my environment but also from some genetic damage. And of course I have cancer. That follows logically enough from what I have just said about myself. There are two points I would like to make about my cancer. On the one hand, it is a physical disease from which I will most likely die in the near future, but then again I may win out against it and survive after all. On the other hand, it is a psychic disorder, and I can only regard its onset in an acute physical form as a great stroke of luck. By this I mean that in view of my unfortunate family legacy, getting cancer was by far the cleverest thing I have ever done in my life.
I doubt that I learned the word "no" from my parents. It was never used in my parents' house because it was superfluous there. We never felt it to be a burdensome necessity or even a compulsion that we always said yes to everything. Saying yes was a need that was ingrained in our flesh and blood and that we felt to be the most natural thing in the world. It was the outward expression of our total harmony. Saying yes was a necessity for us (even though we didn't perceive it to be such). How dreadful it would have been if anyone had ever said no. That would have opened our harmonious world to new vistas that it was incapable of handling and that it wanted to keep "out there" at any cost. So we kept saying yes.
Not only were we constitutionally unable to say no, but we also found it unbearably difficult to make any kind of statement. Anyone who said something had to keep in mind that the others both had to and wanted to respond with yes. Out of consideration for everyone else's feelings, we avoided any statement that might have interfered with the others' natural impulse to say yes. If we had to express any kind of judgment --- on whether we had liked a book, for example --- we first had to calculate what the others' reactions would be. It was like a card game. You had to think ahead before you played your card if you wanted to avoid the danger of saying something that might not win the approval of everyone else present. Or we held back with our own judgment in the hope that someone else would be bold enough to express an opinion, which we could then applaud and adopt as our own. We waited until somebody finally let the cat out of the bag and said that the book had been "good." The rest of us then agreed that the book was "good," maybe even "very good" or "fantastic." But if the first speaker had said it was "not good," then we would have supported him in this opinion, too, and proclaimed the book "not good at all" or even "dreadful."
I developed the habit of not forming judgments of my own and of accepting the judgments of others. I didn't learn to evaluate things myself but valued only what others valued. I liked whatever other people thought was good, and I withheld my approval from whatever others thought was not good. I read "good books" and I liked them because I knew that they were "good." I listened to "good music," and I liked it for the same reason. But it was other people, not I, who determined what was good. I lost the capacity to have spontaneous feelings and preferences.
On the one hand, the knowledge that I was always doing and saying the right thing gave me a certain security. On the other, a field of potential dangers opened up for me if I didn't happen to know what the right thing was and had to depend on my own judgment, that judgment I was struggling so desperately to suppress. I recall, for instance, a conversation with a school-mate who asked me what I was interested in. I couldn't give him a satisfactory answer, and he began to ask specifically if I was interested in this or that. I had to say no every time, with great reluctance, of course, because I never liked to say no and I sensed that my school-mate was in fact interested in those things for which I was expressing no interest. I saw it coming that we were going to be of different opinions, and I was accustomed to avoiding such differences if at all possible.
Finally, the boy asked me whether I liked animals. Although I was afraid of all animals, I couldn't bear to say no again. I lied and said yes, even though I was trembling inwardly at the dire consequences this yes might have, e.g., an invitation to join this boy in playing with animals. Perhaps because my yes did not sound very convincing, he went on to ask whether I was interested in cars. Now I was determined to share his opinion at any cost, and I lied again with still another yes. He replied that he wasn't the least bit interested in cars himself. I had managed to miss the mark twice. He hadn't believed my first lie, which I had told to accommodate him; and my second lie, told for the same reason, backfired because it didn't leave us sharing the same opinion after all. I wanted only to be polite and to have the same opinion he did. I couldn't be honest. But I didn't learn anything from this incident. For years I continued to deprive myself of the friendship of others in this way because I was afraid I might not be of the same opinion as someone else or that something else might not be just "right." I couldn't afford to be honest, or I might break some of the eggs I was always walking on.
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f we accept the definition of a neurotic as a person who can never live in the present and always seeks refuge either in the future or in the past, then I fulfilled all the requirements by the time I was a university student. On the one hand, I still saw myself as a "little boy" who had fallen behind and was still not capable of doing anything. On the other hand, I kept hoping constantly that at some far and indeterminate point in the future I would find the fulfillment I could not find in the present. I kept telling myself that I just couldn't get in the swing of things here in Zurich, where it rained all the time, but that I would really start living on my summer vacation in Spain, where the sun always shines. I was constantly in the company of women at the university, but I imagined that on the same legendary and nebulous vacation in Spain I would surely meet my ideal woman. I was incapable of seeing that circumstances were not responsible for my failure but that I was the failure myself.
I was psychically ill and didn't want to accept that fact. My way out was to find prototypes of myself in the world around me. If I could establish myself as some kind of typical case, I thought, then I could feel sure that I was like other people and therefore normal. This line of thought was erroneous, of course, because the typical can be far from normal. There are typical symptoms of a disease, for example. The fact that all the patients in a TB sanatorium are suffering from the same disease does not mean that they are in a state of normal health. But I still kept a lookout for cases that resembled mine and could provide me with an excuse. I found such cases in literature. Books offered me figure upon figure I could identify with. What happened to a literary figure (and what very likely happened to the author and creator of this figure) could just as easily happen to me, and I took it as a rule and a norm.
Of all the literary figures I knew who had desired a woman but had not had her, who had wanted to live in the thick of life but had languished instead on its fringes, the figure of Tonio Kröger had always preoccupied me the most. Indeed, I could even say that the hero of this melancholy novella by Thomas Mann had been my constant companion from my Gymnasium years on. Tonio Kröger, too, found no proper place in life and was always depressed. He, too, cultivated the "higher things" and therefore had to do without "the joy of the commonplace." Tonio Kröger was an artist, and as such it was his job to describe life, not to experience it. As an artist, he could survey the whole of life. If he had been caught up in the midst of it like a normal person, he would have lost that overview and, with it, the ability to describe.
So far, so good. But there were all sorts of things about Tonio Kröger's life that disturbed me from very early on. On the one hand, Tonio Kröger had to be different from ordinary people because that was his calling. But on the other hand, he couldn't be like ordinary people if he tried, and that's just what was wrong with him. We could say, of course, that it was only natural for him to withdraw from the company of ordinary people because he was an artist. But then we cannot dismiss the suspicion that he was fundamentally incapable of behaving like other people and that art was about the only option he had. He became an artist nolens volens because he wasn't good for anything else. On the one hand, Herr Mann has his Tonio say that his isolation from ordinary people was indeed painful for him but that he had to put up with it, like it or not, as a condition of being born for higher things. On the other hand, I was always convinced that Tonio Kröger was nothing but an artist and that his artist's existence was not a blessing but rather a curse that he had to learn to live with. The primary thing in his life was his inability to be like other people; his artist's career was a secondary factor, proceeding logically from that inability as a by-product of it.
uch were my first inklings that art should probably be regarded merely as a symptom for a low level of vitality, and I began to suspect (without knowing much more of Sigmund Freud than his name) that the impulse behind poetry was quite simple. If a person was only frustrated enough, he would automatically begin to write poems. That was bad news for me, for I realized that my vitality was not in the best of shape, and I also wrote. As a rule, I didn't write poetry, but from my earliest childhood I had written plays for puppet shows, and now, as a student, I was experimenting with short stories. Everyone assured me that I had talent, and people had jokingly called me an artist for a long time. I had always been pleased with the artist's image, and it was possible that I really was an artist. But during my first years at the university, I came to see this status as artist in a different light. Perhaps the artist was never anything more than an artist, an outsider, a pariah; and as proof of his inferiority, he offered his works to society so that everyone could say: "What a pity. Things have gone badly for him in life, and he has therefore become an artist."
For the first time, my own products began to disgust me. It was beside the point whether I liked some of these things and whether they had an artistic value or not. Their literary merit was irrelevant. To me they conveyed only one message: I had written them because I was frustrated and a failure. Several of these pieces, especially some of the plays, struck me as quite good indeed, and I felt that they could stand on their literary merit. But all that became meaningless to me when I considered that my literary production was ultimately nothing but a by-product of my frustration and a confession of my defeat. I decided it would be better not to write anything more, and to bury my shame in eternal silence. I don't know how many times I resolved from this moment forward never to write again and to repress all desire to write. Time and again, I swore I would put an end to this business for good and all, and I usually underscored these resolves by destroying all my works to date. The preferred method was burning so that the purifying flame might forever cleanse me of the stigma of art. But my repeated resolutions and autos-da-fé came to naught. The desire to write could not be burned, and shortly after each auto-da-fé, I would usually feel inspired to write down something new. I was soon back at it again, yielding to the urge to write because there was simply "no resisting it." Then the whole cycle would start over again. I found what I had written abhorrent, and I would destroy it. Once again I would burn everything I had done because I could not tolerate its existence any more now than I had been able to resist producing it in the first place. The more I like my work, the more painful it was for me to destroy it. But at each auto-da-fé I was utterly convinced that the quality of the work did not matter. The point was that writing in itself was a bad thing. It expressed, revealed, and symbolized my inferior existence as an artist and nothing but an artist.
--- From Mars by Fritz Zorn
(Pan Books, Ltd., 1982)
Translated from the German
by Robert and Rita Kimber