“Mario and the Magician,” a 40-page short story by Thomas Mann (1875-1955), was originally published in German in 1929, with an English translation a year later. At that time, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were all in the process of amassing dictatorial political power.
The story unfolds in the late 1920s at Torre di Venere, Italy, a coastal resort on the Tyrrhenian Sea, not far from Naples. The narrator, who is never named, appears to be an entitled northern European tourist, who holds a manifestly condescending view of the local yokels. He is spending a few weeks in August and early September at Torre with his wife and young son and daughter.
The reader does not meet Cipolla, the magician of the title, until a third of the way through the narrative. However, in the very first paragraph the narrator begins to foreshadow the eventual arrival of this “weird creature”: “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.”
Further along in the story, but still before Cipolla makes an appearance, the narrator once again anticipates “that fatal Cipolla” and “the unholy and staggering experience of Cipolla.”
Cipolla proves to be the consummate showman. He begins his performance by making his audience wait in the large wooden shed that serves as a primitive auditorium, thereby prolonging the suspense.
The narrator describes Cipolla as he finally steps onto the stage: “...his small hard eyes, with flabby patches beneath them, roved appraisingly about the hall...” He was in possession of “a riding-whip with a silver claw-handle that hung by a leather thong from his left forearm and looked decidedly out of place.” We soon learn that Cipolla is physically deformed – a visible symbol of his moral deformity – a hunchback, who moves with a deformed gait upon the stage and among the audience, many of whom are weary from a summer of waiting upon wealthy tourists.
Despite his off-putting appearance, his chain-smoking of cheap cigarettes and his continuous sipping of cognac, Cipolla soon develops an uncanny control of those who have come to witness his act. It is clear that his magic is not the magic of sleight-of-hand tricks but that of a hypnotist who delights his audience by seeming to crush the will of selected victims and compelling them to submit to performing embarrassing acts in front of all those present.
He forces one somewhat rude young man to stand up and stick out his tongue and another young man to come up to the stage and kiss him on the cheek near his mouth. Toward the end of the evening, Cipolla calls a number of hypnotized men and women in the audience onto the stage to dance like mind-dead robots; the narrator comments that “the dancing lent a dissolute, abandoned, topsy-turvy air to the scene, a drunken abdication of the critical spirit which had so long resisted the spell of this man.” The narrator adds that at least one of the dancers “seemed quite pleased to be relieved of the burden of voluntary choice.”
It would seem that an element of the magic of Cipolla’s tyrannical domination of the group is the power of his unrestrained insults and humiliations. He brings out the very worst in his audience: while he viciously taunts his hypnotized victims, the onlookers applaud, cheer and laugh. Such is the toxic appeal of the demagogue to the dispossessed.
Cipolla loves the sound of his own voice; he accompanies his performance with almost nonstop patter. Even though his speech is boastful, peevish and often derogatory, his audience eats it up. In response to a brash young man’s perceived insult, Cipolla responds in part: “I can boast of having good evenings (as a performer) almost without exception ... And I flatter myself that my achievements have aroused interest and respect among the educated public. The leading newspapers have lauded me ... in Rome the brother of the Duce honored me by his presence at one of my evenings.”
At times, Cipolla resorts to speaking in the third person, as if to underscore his absolute authority: “Even when Cipolla makes a mistake, it is a kind that makes you believe in him.”
And yet, as the narrator points out, despite his boastful, arrogant talk, Cipolla seems at his core to be profoundly insecure: “His persistent thin-skinnedness and animosity were in striking contrast to the self-confidence and the worldly success he boasted of.”
Seventy years ago or so, the American educator and writer, Robert B. Heilman (1906-2004), commented most perceptively on what Cipolla means for you and for me: “Cipolla really stands for the demagogue type who, whatever the specific political framework, hypnotically dominates a public – partly by trickery, partly by real talent, ... and partly by playing upon a susceptibility which is a real element in his victims.”
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.