My Beloved Silvestra

I recently blogged about Herman Melville’s character “Bartleby the Scrivener” as being one of Gothic horror. Having re-read Thomas Mann’s short story, “Mario and the Magician”, I find his portrayal of Cipolla the Conjurer similarly unsettling, and I think it is a tale that carries as vital a message for today as it did in 1929 when it was written.

 Kellar_levitation_poster

Harry Kellar was an American magician of the late 19th and 20th centuries, whose devices perhaps bore some resemblance to those of the fictional Cipolla. (Public domain via Wikimedia.)

In Mann’s story, the German narrator and his wife and children are taking a summer holiday at a seaside resort on the Tyrrhenian Sea in Southern Italy. The sun is shining and they should be having a swimmingly good time, but it is the era of Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy and a sense of intangible menace is abroad.

The story begins: “The atmosphere of Torre di Venere remains unpleasant in the memory. From the first moment the air of the place made us uneasy, we felt irritable, on edge; then at the end came the shocking business of Cipolla, that dreadful being who seemed to incorporate, in so fateful and so humanly impressive a way, all the peculiar evilness of the situation as a whole.”

From the start of their stay, small disagreeable incidents multiply so as to enhance their uneasiness. They are treated with such snobbish disregard at the Grand Hotel, in the face of an aristocratic lady’s unjust complaint against them, that they feel obliged to move elsewhere. Their eight-year-old daughter’s fleeting, but innocent, nudity on the beach earns them a public denunciation from a bowler-hatted busybody, who accuses them of insulting the honour of Italy, and they receive a fine from the town authorities for this apparently unconscionable offence.   

Then posters announce the forthcoming performance in town of a magician, “Cavaliere Cipolla”, and the narrator’s children pester him into making a family night-out of it. On the advertised evening the hall is packed, and the performer keeps his audience waiting for an inordinate time before taking to the stage.

When he does appear they see, “A man of age hard to determine, but by no means young; with a sharp, ravaged face, piercing eyes, compressed lips, small black waxed moustache, and a so-called imperial in the curve between mouth and chin.”  He is dressed “with a sort of complicated evening elegance,” and he turns back his cape to reveal “a riding-whip with a silver claw-handle” hanging by a leather thong from his left forearm. On removing his hat and outer garments he is revealed as ugly and deformed.

There is a taste of how matters will develop as Cipolla opens by humiliating a heckler, making him stick out his tongue against his will. When the young man challenges him again later, he forces him to double up as if in colic pain. But the first half of the performance largely consists of the familiar “magician’s” fare, such as tricks with cards, numbers and objects, whereby he correctly guesses things he apparently has no way of knowing. The conjuror’s elaborate patter, delivered in a “wheezing, metallic voice”, is taunting and suggestive throughout, and the way he works the audience is insidiously controlling. He makes jokes, but they are often designed to achieve a targeted individual’s humiliation, and he is careful to only treat lower class spectators in such a degrading way. He is personally boastful, and evinces a bombastic patriotism.

Yet despite the underlying reserve, and antipathy, towards the performer that the narrator senses, “the curiosity of the entire audience was unbounded and universal, everybody both enjoyed the amusing character of the entertainment and unanimously conceded the professional skill of the performer.”

As the evening lengthens the narrator and his wife realise belatedly that the spectacle is unsuitable for their children, but find themselves somehow unable to break away. They rationalise their inertia on the ground that leaving would spoil the children’s evident enjoyment. By the time the intermission comes it is already after eleven p.m. and the children are nodding off, but still they stay.

On his reappearance (after a further tantalising delay), the magician discards the surrounding artifice of trickery and nakedly reveals that his real business is bending others to his will thorough hypnotic suggestion: “An elderly lady in a cane-seated chair was lulled by Cipolla into the delusion that she was on a visit to India and gave a voluble account of her adventures by land and sea.” “A tall, well-built, soldierly man”, is unable to lift his arm, despite his strenuous efforts to do so, after being told by Cipolla that he cannot. A lady with an “ethereal lack of resistance to his power” is encouraged to join him on stage, and she follows his beckoning finger even while her distraught husband implores her to return to her place by calling her name. People are made to dance, “in a kind of complacent ecstasy, eyes closed, head nodding, lank limbs flying in all directions.” Each command is accompanied by a swish of Cipolla’s claw-handled riding-whip.

Events turn ever uglier, and it is well after midnight when they move to a ghastly climax. The children are awake to see a favourite waiter of theirs from a local restaurant, named Mario, be enticed alone up to the stage. The magician interrogates the simple-natured youth insinuatingly, seeking to extract titillating details of his personal life. He prizes out the fact that Mario loves a girl called Silvestra, but that he is unsure of her feelings for him. He plays on Mario’s uncertainties, suggesting that his beloved Silvestra might like to cavort with rougher types than himself. At last he persuades the hapless waiter that he himself is Silvestra. “It is time that you see me and recognise me, Mario, my beloved!” Cipolla entreats his victim, “Kiss me…Trust me, I love thee.” Mario leans down and kisses his tormentor, but then recoils horribly at the act.

I’ll leave you to find out how it ends, if you’re so-minded. The story is, of course, an allegory of the rise of fascism which Mann had witnessed in Italy and which was to be writ larger in his German homeland. But it’s a timeless tale in that there will always be proselytisers of wicked creeds who seek to hypnotise others into false beliefs. Mann emphasised the importance of the crowd-pressure that fascism relied upon in deconstructing individual will. But nowadays you don’t even need to leave your bedroom to be deceived by internet ideologues into believing that they are your beloved Silvestra.      

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