Thomas Mann

Banquet speech


Thomas Mann’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at Grand Hôtel, Stockholm, December 10, 1929


Now my turn to thank you has come, and I need not tell you how much I have looked forward to it. But alas, at this moment of truth I am afraid that words will fail my feelings, as is so often the case with born non-orators.

All writers belong to the class of non-orators. The writer and the orator are not only different, but they stand in opposition, for their work and the achievement of their effects proceed in different ways. In particular the convinced writer is instinctively repelled, from a literary standpoint, by the improvised and noncomittal character of all talk, as well as by that principle of economy which leaves many and indeed decisive gaps which must be filled by the effects of the speaker’s personality. But my case is complicated by temporary difficulties that have virtually foredoomed my makeshift oratory. I am referring, of course, to the circumstances into which I have been placed by you, gentlemen of the Swedish Academy, circumstances of marvellous confusion and exuberance. Truly, I had no idea of the thunderous honours that are yours to bestow! I have an epic, not a dramatic nature. My disposition and my desires call for peace to spin my thread, for a steady rhythm in life and art. No wonder, if the dramatic firework that has crashed from the North into this steady rhythm has reduced my rhetorical abilities even beneath their usual limitations. Ever since the Swedish Academy made public its decision, I have lived in festive intoxication, an enchanting topsy-turvy, and I cannot illustrate its consequences on my mind and soul better than by pointing to a pretty and curious love poem by Goethe. It is addressed to Cupid himself and the line that I have in mind goes: «Du hast mir mein Gerät verstellt und verschoben.» Thus the Nobel Prize has wrought dramatic confusion among the things in my epic household, and surely I am not being impertinent if I compare the effects of the Nobel Prize on me to those that passion works in a well-ordered human life.

And yet, how difficult it is for an artist to accept without misgivings such honours as are now showered upon me! Is there a decent and self-critical artist who would not have an uneasy conscience about them? Only a suprapersonal, supra-individual point of view will help in such a dilemma. It is always best to get rid of the individual, particularly in such a case. Goethe once said proudly, «Only knaves are modest.» That is very much the word of a grand seigneur who wanted to disassociate himself from the morality of subalterns and hypocrites. But, ladies and gentlemen, it is hardly the whole truth. There is wisdom and intelligence in modesty, and he would be a silly fool indeed who would find a source of conceit and arrogance in honours such as have been bestowed upon me. I do well to put this international prize that through some chance was given to me, at the feet of my country and my people, that country and that people to which writers like myself feel closer today than they did at the zenith of its strident empire.

After many years the Stockholm international prize has once more been awarded to the German mind, and to German prose in particular, and you may find it difficult to appreciate the sensitivity with which such signs of world sympathy are received in my wounded and often misunderstood country.

May I presume to interpret the meaning of this sympathy more closely? German intellectual and artistic achievements during the last fifteen years have not been made under conditions favourable to body and soul. No work had the chance to grow and mature in comfortable security, but art and intellect have had to exist in conditions intensely and generally problematic, in conditions of misery, turmoil, and suffering, an almost Eastern and Russian chaos of passions, in which the German mind has preserved the Western and European principle of the dignity of form. For to the European, form is a point of honour, is it not? I am not a Catholic, ladies and gentlemen; my tradition is like that of all of you; I support the Protestant immediateness to God. Nevertheless, I have a favourite saint. I will tell you his name. It is Saint Sebastian, that youth at the stake, who, pierced by swords and arrows from all sides, smiles amidst his agony. Grace in suffering: that is the heroism symbolized by St. Sebastian. The image may be bold, but I am tempted to claim this heroism for the German mind and for German art, and to suppose that the international honour fallen to Germany’s literary achievement was given with this sublime heroism in mind. Through her poetry Germany has exhibited grace in suffering. She has preserved her honour, politically by not yielding to the anarchy of sorrow, yet keeping her unity; spiritually by uniting the Eastern principle of suffering with the Western principle of form – by creating beauty out of suffering.

Allow me at the end to become personal. I have told even the first delegates who came to me after the decision how moved and how pleased I was to receive such an honour from the North, from that Scandinavian sphere to which as a son of Lübeck I have from childhood been tied by so many similarities in our ways of life, and as a writer by so much literary sympathy and admiration for Northern thought and atmosphere. When I was young, I wrote a story that young people still like: Tonio Kröger. It is about the South and the North and their mixture in one person, a problematic and productive mixture. The South in that story is the essence of sensual, intellectual adventure, of the cold passion of art. The North, on the other hand, stands for the heart, the bourgeois home, the deeply rooted emotion and intimate humanity. Now this home of the heart, the North, welcomes and embraces me in a splendid celebration. It is a beautiful and meaningful day in my life, a true holiday of life, a «högtidsdag», as the Swedish language calls any day of rejoicing. Let me tie my final request to this word so clumsily borrowed from Swedish: Let us unite, ladies and gentlemen, in gratitude and congratulations to the Foundation, so beneficial and important the world over, to which we owe this magnificent evening. According to good Swedish custom, join me in a fourfold hurrah to the Nobel Foundation!

Prior to the speech, Professor J. E. Johansson made the following comments: «Thomas Mann has described the phenomena which are accessible to us without the help of models of electrons and atoms. His investigations concern human nature as we have learned to know it in the light of conscience. Thus his field is many centuries old; but Thomas Mann has shown that it offers no fewer new problems of great interest today. I take it that he does not feel a stranger in a group where everybody considers, as Alfred Nobel did, the human endeavour of the study of the relations among phenomena as the basis of all civilization, and I am quite sure that he will not feel an alien in a country so close to his own.»

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1929

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