The Artist’s Library: Rita Ackermann (with Rachel Rosin) on The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann

By Sarah Blakley-Cartwright

Thomas Mann, The Holy Sinner, 1951. Knopf Edition. Courtesy Penguin Random House, New York

  • Jul 28, 2023
  • Ursula: Issue 8

The Holy Sinner, originally published in German under the title The Chosen One, was the last novel by Thomas Mann to appear during his lifetime, and it served in many ways as a fitting coda to the life of a writer whose enduring themes were sin and redemption. A retelling of the popular medieval legend of the apocryphal Saint Grigorss (Gregorius)—the child of an incestuous union who goes on to marry his own mother and then redeems himself, rising to become one of Rome’s most illustrious popes—the novel was conceived by Mann as an improbably playful meditation on impossibly thorny moral questions.

“It is light, it is serene,” he wrote his American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. “It has a certain aloofness without being cold.”

Now obscure in Mann’s oeuvre, the novel, published in English in 1951, has long been a favorite of the Hungarian-American artist Rita Ackermann. In this installment of The Artist’s Library, our recurring series in which novelist Sarah Blakley-Cartwright asks artists to discuss their favorite books, Ackermann (with the help of her former studio assistant, Rachel Rosin, a fellow fan of the book) traces its Oedipal, ontological paths. The following is edited and condensed from email exchanges among the three:

Hermit, ca. 1480, woodcut. Artokoloro / Alamy Stock Photo

Sarah Blakley-Cartwright: In what he calls his preface, the narrator in this very strange book introduces the story as “a tale at once fruitful and highly edifying.” What keeps drawing you to return to the novel, Rita?

Rita Ackermann and Rachel Rosin: I think it’s the multitudes of ways to read into the story, paired with the theme of the perpetual cycle of the highest and lowest states of a human’s life. The novel is lyrical: A mother prays to God, looking up at a glorious image in the chapel of the Blessed Virgin, and cries out, exclaiming her romantic love for the young knight, her son. The entire prayer is full of rhymes. It’s like a poetic symphony to the heavens above. How can a story of such sin—such incest!—be so beautiful, so expressive and melodic?

SBC: The narrator opens with a stunning pronouncement of his own power. “He is as air, bodiless, ubiquitous, not subject to distinctions of here and there.” He says: “All the bells were ringing; and, in consequence, it is he who rings them.” Of course, Mann lies somewhere behind this narrator.

RA/RR: He was a Nobel Prize-winning writer who could easily have become the cultural face of Nazi Germany, but instead he chose to fight fascism and fled the country. He nevertheless struggled greatly with his own demons, which dragged him to such lows that I think he needed to psychoanalyze the dangerous desires and dark thoughts of characters like the ones in this book, characters who might narrowly have been versions of himself.

SBC: The narrator is the embodiment of narrative, the “personification of the spirit of storytelling.” But bodies in this novel are suspicious, insofar as they are often the instruments of sin. The narrator remarks upon the body’s “urgent need and its repulsiveness.” Why might Mann choose to make the narrator himself straddle these two realities, his ideal and his actuality?

RA/RR: This book has preoccupations similar to the ones in Death in Venice and Tristan and Isolde, in which the human body is set out to destroy the soul. It is possible that Mann wished to make himself into a kind of spirit narrator to wash his own sinful thinking clean. As you say, Sarah, Mann writes a narrator who lives quite comfortably in the in-between: as embodied and disembodied, as storyteller and subject.

I do not care for this word “embodiment” so much, since (of course) it derives from the body and the fleshly shape which together with the name of Morhold I have put o­ff, and which in all ways is a domain of Satan, through him capable of abominations and subject to them, though one scarcely understands why it does not reject them. On the other hand, the body is the vehicle of the soul and God-given reason, without which these would be deprived of their basis; and so one must regard the body as a necessary evil. —The Holy Sinner

SBC: The narrator is intrusive, unsubtle and seems to have trouble blending into his own story.

RA/RR: Right. The narrator sprinkles his own feelings on the characters throughout the novel. Although the narrator is omniscient, he cannot help but also have feelings, thoughts and opinions on the characters and their choices. The narrator exists in between narrator/character, between objective and subjective entity. Maybe Mann configures the narrator in between these two realities to allow for a specific flexibility in the narrative, to discourage a fixity or rigidity in the story and instead to encourage nuance.

… human reckoning does not go far, except in the narrator’s case, who knows the whole story up to its wondrous ending and as it were shares in the divine providence— a unique privilege and one actually not proper to the human being. —The Holy Sinner

SBC: Equipped with pre-vision, the narrator is (like Grigorss) unnatural, inhuman. Holiness and humanity are hopelessly interwoven throughout the novel. Why does Mann want to make it so hard to tell the two apart?

RA/RR: Mann’s narrator is one man, and then within a paragraph, or a page, he becomes another. In The Holy Sinner, there is the sense of a story influx, one that can easily succumb to change. Though there is a particular narrator telling a particular story, it feels all-at-once present. Mann has the narrator describe himself as the “incarnation of the spirit of storytelling.” He has the power to be everywhere, even more than the usual omniscient narrator. This “everywhereness” relates to in-betweenness, which allows the storytelling to feel alive.

SBC: Despite his protests to the contrary, the narrator is an aesthetic snob. He says he will try to tell the story as well as his “monkish understanding can.” But then he snobbishly dismisses the words of an Augustinian monk: “That is indeed scarcely tolerable, stylistically as well as also in other ways, and probably such peasantly rubbish could never flow from a Roman pen.”

RA/RR: Mann’s own vanity is flashing there. He is one of the most celebrated authors of his time, and he knows it!

Thomas Mann in 1952. ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Thomas-Mann-Archiv. Photographer unknown

“Mann could easily have become the cultural face of Nazi Germany, but instead he chose to fight fascism and fled the country. He nevertheless struggled greatly with his own demons, which dragged him to such lows that I think he needed to psychoanalyze the dangerous desires and dark thoughts of characters like the ones in this book.…”—Rita Ackermann

SBC: The limits of language seem to keep haunting the narrator. Attempting to describe a nightmare, he remarks: “The dream was incomparably more fruitful than it sounds in words.”

RA/RR: To me, this relates to a state where things exist beyond understanding, comprehending— the highest state, from which art can be originated without explanation. The novel is interested in the way in which words fail us, especially, perhaps, in spaces of the unconscious, or in places of the dream. Throughout The Holy Sinner, the characters speak in French, German, Latin and oftentimes in a mixture of all three. One character notes that the war would end if only the Duchess would simply marry a neighboring prince, as he wishes. But the Duchess says, “Niemalen de la vie!” (meaning, in a mix of French/German, “Never in life!”). It is quite interesting, this fluidity of language, or the coalescence of multiple languages.

SBC: The novel’s first act tells of two noble children, brother and sister, who fall in love, fatefully, and conceive a child. The brother remarks, “I did not know that sin is so fearfully fertile.” What do you think Mann is trying to have us understand, if anything, about the nature of sin?

RA/RR: The brother is commenting on the fact that, for their mother and father, who married lawfully and righteously, it was extremely difficult to have children—they had to suffer, waiting twenty years to have children. And yet, he and his sister sleep together in sin and bear a child almost instantly. In the novel, in other words, sin quickly reproduces itself. Mann might be exorcising sin by writing a novel that epitomizes the downfalls of desires—an attempt in old age to rid himself of darkness by embracing it.

SBC: The tragedy springs from the idea of hierarchy, an inclination not to tarnish a noble family’s integrity by fraternizing with associates of lowly proximity. Their divine favor is their undoing. They are not meant for the world. A secondary character chastises the sister: “The greatest disorder have you set up and a bafflement of nature.”

RA/RR: Death surrounds the relationship of the sibling-lovers. They were born out of death (their mother dying in childbirth), they make love the night that their father dies, and their dog is even killed in the act of their love. The characters alternate between being the chosen ones and being the greatest sinners. They move up and down a kind of ladder of good and evil, of holiness and sinning. It’s an idea from Jewish mysticism: “The lower the dip the higher the reach.” The harder you fall, the higher you can climb. There’s something very visual about disorder and chaos. It feels centripetal. Later in the book, when the two characters, who are unknowingly mother and son (also aunt and nephew, as she is his father’s sister) have a daughter together, the narrator uses the imagery of backwardness, of disorder. The narrator writes of this daughter, one who is conceived of sin atop sin, “that she had her head on the wrong way, nobody saw.”

SBC: And yet the narrator can’t help but root for his doomed characters: “Out of all bounds they loved and that is why I cannot quite rid me of well-wishing for them, God help me!” And later, “ I confess myself guilty of a weakness—not for the sin (the heavens forfend!), but for the sinners, yes….” The intensity of their passion “should not increase my sympathy, yet it does.” Why does Mann make the narrator such an imperfect delegate of God?

RA/RR: In my opinion, it’s a personal confession, and his hope of expiation by way of his genius for writing. The most gripping of Mann’s novels engage in a “deep tissue” psychoanalysis and the consequences of the sinful desires of the flesh.

SBC: Grigorss, the child born to the remarkable, highborn brother and sister, is “the child of the bad children.” And yet he turns out to be markedly handsome, brilliant, sure-footed and skillful. The fruit of sin, a child of unmatched nobility, he is at once blessed and condemned to ill fate. Both a young heir to the throne and a “nobody, flotsam from the sea.” What do you make of this duality?

Rita Ackermann, Excerpt from Sketchbook II (A Midsummer Night's Dream), 10.75 x 17.5 in. (27.30 x 44.45 cm). Courtesy the artist and American Art Catalogues

Rita Ackermann, Excerpt from Sketchbook I (For Mama), 10.75 x 17.5 in. (27.30 x 44.45 cm). Courtesy the artist and American Art Catalogues

RA/RR: It’s the two poles of the scale of human life. Living in the fisherman’s hut, he goes to a monastery to learn. Grigorss’ speech becomes more refined: He learns to speak Latin, reads many books, learns lectures in science and religion and has a very open mind. The young boy is modest, courteous, good-mannered and lovely. He’s viewed as a true religious scholar. The townspeople speak of how odd it was that this boy—who came from the hut and a fisherman’s lifestyle—was as noble as he was. Ultimately, his brother from the fisherman family becomes angry, finding Grigorss too prideful: “You are a mockery through and through because you turn the world upside down and confuse the distinctions.” Grigorss did certainly feel this, an “inward struggle.” Mann sets out, in a single character, the highest highs and the lowest lows on the human scale.

SBC: Grigorss embarks on a search for identity, a kind of knight’s quest. “Only one thing avails: the journey after myself, the knowledge of who I am.” But this quest is hopelessly perverted. He discovers a duchess whose chastity he must protect; he defeats her tormentor and marries her, unaware all the while that his bride is his own mother. They proceed to have children together; sin begets sin.

RA/RR: When he unknowingly marries his mother, the narrator goes on a short rant, blaming Nature—interestingly, the narrator calls Nature a “She,” blaming this feminine power for the perversion. Notably, mother and son originally name their daughter Herrad but then change her name to Humilitas, meaning humility in Latin, once they realize their grave sin. They name their second daughter Stultitia, meaning stupidity in Latin. It’s interesting—when I looked up their daughter’s original name, Herrad, I saw it means “horseshoe” in Spanish. In literature and religion, a horseshoe is a symbol for luck or strength. I wonder what else a horseshoe might connote in this context—the connectedness of a mother and son who are husband and wife or father and mother?

SBC: Nature’s indifference is remarked upon so much in the book: “My spirit cannot find itself in nature… she is of the devil, for her indifference is bottomless.”

RA/RR: Perhaps Mann is suggesting just this: that sin is contagious. It spreads quickly. Evil thrives off other forms of evil. Sin rapidly multiplies and proliferates.

SBC: Grigorss has prayed to be reunited with his mother. God grants this wish, but perversely. In this, Mann makes his characters move backwards, “…making a man born of a woman beget not forwards in time but backwards into the mother womb, rousing up to himself descendants whose faces, so to speak, are turned the wrong way.” Of course, the novel is very Freudian. Many years before this in the novel, when the mother has said goodbye to her brother-lover and is pregnant with his child, she has a nightmare in which she gives birth to a dragon who cruelly tears her womb. Then the dragon flies away, which causes her great mental anguish, but later it returns and gives her even greater pain by squeezing back into the torn womb. Both the brother-father and son serve as this dragon: Both fly away. Then the son returns to his mother and becomes her lover, returning to the “mother-womb.” The young man marvels that the Earth still dares to bear him, given that he is the man most “plunged in sin there ever was on Earth.” In search of penance and abasement, he exiles himself to an island, basically a rock, for seventeen years, knowing that his young body, in its prime, is “composed all of sin.” So he returns to nature, as it were, shrinking down to a “mossy creature... what remained of him dried, evaporated…”

RA/RR: Grigorss decides he must become a beggar, to live his life in full penance, to repent for the sin he was born of and the sin he created. In this novel Mann wanted to create a human body that is pure sin.

Belching now and then, somewhat slobbering, the man lay drawn up into himself, knees at his mouth … his constant posture of being curled in on himself made him grow visibly smaller … Finally … he was not much bigger than a hedgehog, a prickly, bristly moss-grown nature-thing, whom no weather could affect, and whose shrunken members, the little arms and legs, even eye- and mouth-openings, were hard to recognize. It knew time no more. —The Holy Sinner

SBC: In the novel’s final act, Grigorss morphs one last time. The bristly, shrunken beast of the field transforms into the beautiful young man and takes his rightful place as the chosen one, elected by God to be the head of the Roman church. Again, there seems to be no place for him among mankind, so in the end he, reborn as Gregorius, takes his place above humanity. Why is Grigorss repeatedly subsumed, first on the island, then into the role of the pope?

RA/RR: Good question. The morphing of identities is very interesting. He goes from being a baby of sin to a castaway baby floating in the sea to the child of fishermen to a golden child of the monks and the Abbot. Then from being a knight to a duke, a husband to his own mother, a father to a sinner, a beggar, a tiny creature on a rock and finally a pope, ruler of the land. Could it be that, with the elevation above human laws of his protagonist, Mann finally casts his hero fully from society?

SBC: The novel opens with the pealing of the city bells in Rome, which in themselves swing like a pendulum. It closes, too, with city bells, as the new pope makes his way through Rome for his coronation. How do you interpret the recurrence of the image?

RA/RR: I think Mann is relating the story to the dynamics of a fable, the most ancient oral storytelling traditions humans have, sustained mouth by mouth over centuries.

SBC: The disgraced duchess understands that Grigorss must be three things to her: her child, her spouse and her pope. What do you make of this unholy triptych?

RA/RR: Unconditional love, perhaps?

SBC: For a tragedy of mythic proportions, the novel—and the legend—have an oddly happy ending. Do you buy it?

RA/RR: Yes!

Sarah Blakley-Cartwright is a writer and editor living in New York. Her novel Alice Sadie Celine will be published in December 2023 by Simon & Schuster.

Rachel Rosin is Curatorial Assistant at The Museum of Modern Art and former Exhibitions & Research Coordinator at the Rita Ackermann Studio.

Rita Ackermann (b.1968) lives and works in New York. Ackermann’s work in painting and on paper proposes a continuous shift between representation and abstraction. Employing a range of media, including oil and acrylic paint, pastel, wax pencil and raw pigment, her expression hinges on automatic gestures and opposing impulses of creation and destruction.