Hyperinflation and Hyperreality: Mann's “Disorder and Early Sorrow”

Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture - Paul A. Cantor & Stephen Cox 2009

Hyperinflation and Hyperreality: Mann's “Disorder and Early Sorrow”

Paul A. Cantor

One may say that, apart from wars and revolutions, there is nothing in our modern civilizations which compares in importance to [inflation]. The upheavals caused by inflations are so profound that people prefer to hush them up and conceal them.

—Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

I have always regarded the German inflation as a kind of mirage, a witches' sabbath, that vanished, leaving nothing behind it but headaches and regrets. In the summer of 1923 the Inflation, like the legendary witches' dance, became wilder and wilder, the figures rose faster and faster. Then suddenly the cock crowed, the night was over, and the witch, exhausted and disillusioned, found herself back in her old kitchen.

—Thomas Mann1


As a modernist writer, Thomas Mann was a master of irony and ambiguity. It should come as no surprise, then, that it is very difficult to pin down his views on economic issues. His most sustained attempt to articulate a social philosophy, Confessions of a Non-Political Man (1918), is a Romantic critique of capitalist modernity that seems to place Mann in the conservative or reactionary camp. But later in life, particularly in response to the rise of fascism, Mann became sympathetic to socialist views.2 Yet his socialism remained tinged with his aestheticism; characteristically, in a 1928 essay “Culture and Socialism,” he hoped for a “union and pact of the conservative culture idea with revolutionary social thinking, between Greece and Moscow,” as he put it, and he went on to wish that Karl Marx had read the German idealist poet Friedrich Hölderlin.3 Yet even while Mann indulged in fantasies of a Marxism with a German idealist face, he wondered if socialism would allow him to live in the style to which he had become accustomed under capitalism. He was very much the product of the bourgeois world and capitalism was very good to him. In a 1921 essay called “Spirit and Money” (“Geist und Geld”), he admitted: “I am personally obligated from early on to the capitalist world order, and therefore it would never be fitting for me, as is the fashion, to spit on it.”4 Torn between socialism and capitalism, Mann was tempted to embrace the middle path of the welfare state, a market economy managed by government intervention. In the 1930s he became a great admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and many critics have viewed his Joseph and His Brothers as a celebration of the American New Deal and its model of a managed economy. As Henry Hatfield writes,

Joseph proceeds to build up a welfare state on a grand scale. It is typical of the “mediator” Joseph that his eco nomic dictatorship is an adroit combination of capitalism and socialism. In his attack on the power of the Egyptian barons, his solicitude for the poor, his popularity, and his happy blending of cunning and benevolence, Joseph “is” Franklin Roosevelt, mythically speaking.5

The Marxist literary critic Georg Lukács found a way to cut through the Gordian knot of Mann's bewilderingly contradictory statements on economic issues. Lukács readily admitted that Mann was a bourgeois writer, but he argued that the author of Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, and Doctor Faustus could nev ertheless be used for Marxist purposes. For Lukács, Mann was the great representative in the twentieth century of what he called critical realism in literature. In the tradition of holding the mirror up to nature, Mann's fiction offers a remarkably accurate representation of life in the modern bourgeois world. Thus, it did not matter to Lukács what Mann himself said about this world in his own voice. All that mattered to Lukács was that Mann had succeeded in embodying in his works a true reflection of the contradictions in bourgeois society. Lukács felt that he could read Marxist lessons out of Mann's fiction—if Mann realistically represents the modern bourgeois world, then anything Marx says about that world should be equally true of Mann's fictional universe. Thus, despite Mann's bourgeois roots and sympathies, Lukács viewed him as more useful to the cause of socialism than many writers openly working on its behalf:

Thomas Mann occupies a special position in the his tory of critical realism. While the great bourgeois realists, say from Fielding to Tolstoy, presented bourgeois life itself, Thomas Mann gives us a totality of the inner problems of contemporary bourgeois life. Obviously not in an abstract, conceptual form; Mann always presents living people in real situations. However, the particular position he takes vis-à-vis the present and future of bourgeois society makes him choose his characters and plots from the standpoint of these inner problems rather than directly from everyday life. Thus the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie is not reflected immediately in his work. But the ideological, emotional and moral problems, all the typical reflexes of bourgeois society upon which class struggle leaves its mark emerge as a result in a more complete, more comprehensive totality.... Posterity will be able to recapture from his work with equal freshness how the typical figures of present-day bourgeois society lived, with what issues they wrestled.6

In short, for Lukács Mann as a realist accurately represents economic phenomena in his fiction and hence one can use Marxist economic theories to analyze his works. The way Lukács reads Mann has served as a model for much Marxist literary criticism ever since. But Lukács's approach to Mann obviously rests on the premise of the truth of Marxist economics. If one challenges that premise, as we have been doing in this book, the case of Mann begins to look very different. Perhaps his fiction can be interpreted in light of Austrian economics, and the problems he portrays in bourgeois society may be traced to government intervention in the economy, rather than to the unfettered working of capitalism. To explore this possibility, I will discuss a short story Mann wrote in 1925, “Unordnung und fr ü hes Leid,” or, as it is known in English, “Disorder and Early Sorrow.”7 Set in Weimar Germany during the time of the hyperinflation, this story takes on new meaning once it is analyzed in terms of Austrian theories of money and banking. With Mann's uncanny ability to mirror economic and social real ity in his fiction, he succeeds even without any knowledge of Austrian economics in bringing out the psychological ramifications of an inflationary environment with a subtlety of insight Mises and Hayek would have admired. Moreover, as we analyze “Disorder and Early Sorrow” in light of the Austrian theory of inflation, we will see that the story has larger implications for our understand ing of twentieth-century cultural history.


At first sight, “Disorder and Early Sorrow” may appear too insubstantial to bear up under the weight of any kind of sustained analysis.8 Mann tells the tale of an apparently average day in the life of Dr. Abel Cornelius, a professor of history. His teenage children, Ingrid and Bert, are holding a party for their friends, a typical cross-section of youthful acquaintances, including students and entertainers. Everyone enjoys the party, especially the professor's younger children, Ellie and Snapper (Lorchen and Beißer in the original German), who relish the opportunity to spend time with the grown-ups. Finding his routine disturbed by the presence of all the young people, the professor is nevertheless attracted to them and their modern way of life. He wanders in and out of the party, tries to get some work done in his study, and eventually goes out for his daily walk. He returns to find his house in an uproar. His five-year old daughter is throwing a tantrum, as a result of feeling spurned by an engineering student named Max Hergesell, for whom she rather precociously developed a crush while he playfully danced with her. Upset that Hergesell cannot be her brother, little Ellie is not consoled until at the end of the story Max gallantly comes to her room to wish her good night.

Although seemingly slim in substance, “Disorder and Early Sorrow” presents the kind of world familiar to us from famous texts of literary modernism such as Eliot's The Waste Land or Mann's own “Death in Venice.” The story charts the dissolution of authority, as we watch a social order breaking down and see the confusions that result. In particular, Mann portrays a world in which parents are losing their authority over their children. View ing their parents as old fogies, the children think of their own generation as smarter than their predecessors. Mann portrays a world that has gone mad in the worship of youth. As a sign of the resulting confusion, we are introduced to the “big folk” (“die Grossen”) in the first paragraph,9 only to discover in the second that the term applies to the teenagers, not, as one would expect, to their parents. The little children already call their father by his first name. As a story of people growing up too fast, “Disorder and Early Sorrow” appropriately concludes with the incident of Ellie's infatuation with Max. The image of a five-year old girl having her first love affair becomes Mann's way of crystallizing our sense of the bewildering pace of development in this world.

In “Disorder and Early Sorrow” all categories are breaking down. While the children behave like adults, the adults start behaving like children. In order to play with Ellie and Snapper, Cornelius “will crook his knees until he is the same height with themselves and go walking with them, hand in hand.”10 This image of a “diminished Abel”11 points to the broader collapse of hierarchy in Cornelius's world, especially any sense of social distinctions. He has a hard time telling his son and his servant apart; they dress alike and are prone to the same youthful fads and fashions.12 The world of “Disorder and Early Sorrow” has become so confusing that it is difficult for the characters simply to tell what is real anymore, a development emphasized by the presence of actors throughout the story. Mann highlights elements of imitation and parody; Ingrid has “a marked and irresistible talent for burlesque,”13 which she and her brother love to put to use: “They adore impersonating fictitious characters; they love to sit in a bus and carry on long lifelike conversations in a dialect which they otherwise never speak.”14 When an actor named Ivan Herzl shows up at the party in heavy makeup, he provokes Cornelius into thinking about how people no longer are what they seem: “You would think a man would be one thing or the other — not melancholic and use face paint at the same time.”15 Mann creates a pervasive sense of inauthenticity in the story; the modern world is a counterfeit world.

With all stable points of reference gone, the only law of “Dis order and Early Sorrow” appears to be perpetual change. Against this instability, Mann sets his central character. As a professor of history, Cornelius is always searching for something solid to grab hold of in the midst of all this mutability, and he wistfully contrasts the fixity of the past with the ever-changing world of the present: “He knows that history professors do not love history because it is something that comes to pass, but only because it is something that has come to pass; that they hate a revolution like the present one because they feel it is lawless, incoherent, irrelevant — in a word, unhistoric; that their hearts belong to the coherent, disciplined, historic past.... [He seeks] the temper of eternity.”16 Thus, like The Waste Land, “Disorder and Early Sorrow” counterpoints the coherence of past eras with the incoherence of modern times.


Thus far Mann's story sounds like many other modernist works, chronicling the breakdown of order in twentieth-century life. But when one looks in the story for Mann's sense of what is responsible for this breakdown, the distinctive character of “Disorder and Early Sorrow” begins to emerge. Modernists have put forward many explanations for the incoherence of twentieth-century life. In The Waste Land, for example, Eliot correlates the disorder of the modern city with a failure of religious faith and a loss of the tra ditional myths that used to give coherence to life. But in “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” Mann explores another possibility, correlating his portrait of modern life with a specific historical event— the German inflation of the 1920s, an economic catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions.17 The German government had begun to inflate its currency during World War I in a desperate and deceptive attempt to meet its enormous financial obligations without raising taxes. The post-war government developed an even greater mania for deficit financing and printing money, given its new need to fund the reparations to the Allies and the social benefits promised by the democratic Weimar regime. As a result, the value of the German mark plummeted. As Mann points out in his 1942 memoir on the inflation, by 1923 the mark was reduced to less than one-trillionth of what it had been worth before the war.18 With the German printing presses running at capacity and around the clock, by the end of 1923 there were approximately 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 marks in circulation.19 The absurdity of printing paper currency in such quantities is crystallized in one anecdote: “A story is told of two women carrying to the bank a laundry basket filled to the brim with banknotes. Seeing a crowd standing round a shop window, they put down their basket for a moment to see if there was anything they could buy. When they turned round a few moments later, they found the money still there untouched. But the basket had gone.”20

The disaster of the German inflation is a classic illustration of one of the fundamental principles of Austrian economics—the danger of a purely paper currency, severed from any link to a commodity like gold. Inflation has been blamed on many factors, but for the Austrians, as for several other economic schools, it is a product of money and credit expansion. Inflation is a giant illu sion, often exploited by governments. What appears to be a general rise in prices is in fact simply a fall in the value of money, resulting from a sudden increase in its supply, usually engineered by government fiscal policies. To be sure, inflation can happen even with a commodity-based currency. A sudden and increased flow of gold into an economy, as happened for example in Spain as a result of its conquests in the New World in the sixteenth century, can have a pronounced inflationary effect. In the first half of the sixteenth century, prices in Spain roughly doubled as a result of what can be called gold inflation.21 But obviously a currency losing half its value over a fifty-year period pales in comparison with what happened to the mark in Weimar Germany. With a commodity-based money, inflation will be comparatively gradual and moderate. Moreover, since gold is a commodity-and is therefore subject to fluctuations in demand for both its monetary and non-monetary uses—its value can go up as well as down, and thus its price will tend to average out over time.22 Inconvertible paper currencies, by contrast, have historically moved in only one direction—they inexorably go down in value over time.23 All the examples of a currency being inflated so rapidly and so inor dinately that it eventually became worthless have involved inconvertible paper money, for example the infamous continentals during the American revolution (“not worth a continental”) and the equally infamous assignats of Revolutionary France.24 Unlike a commodity-based money, a pure paper currency is infinitely inflatable. Hence only under a paper money regime can inflation turn into what has come to be known as hyperinflation.25

And that is the phenomenon Mann explores in “Disorder and Early Sorrow.” He suggests that if we seek an explanation for the dissolution of authority in the world he is portraying, we should look to the monetary madness of the Weimar Republic.26 As he shows, inflation eats away at more than people's wealth; it fundamentally changes the way they view the world, ultimately weakening even their sense of reality. In short Mann suggests a connection between hyperinflation and what is often called hyperreality.27 Everything threatens to become unreal once money loses its reality. I said that a strong sense of counterfeit reality prevails in “Disorder and Early Sorrow.” That fact is ulti mately to be traced to the biggest counterfeiter of them all—the government and its printing presses. Hyperinflation occurs when a government starts printing all the money it wants, that is to say, when the government becomes a counterfeiter. In a hyperinflation, the distinction between real money and fake money begins to dissolve.28 That is why hyperinflation has such a corrosive effect on society. Money is one of the primary measures of value in any society, perhaps the principal repository of value. As such, money is a central source of stability, continuity, and coherence in any community. Hence to tamper with the basic money supply is to tamper with a community's sense of value. By making money worthless, hyperinflation threatens to under mine and dissolve all sense of value in a society.

Thus Mann suggests a connection between hyperinflation and nihilism. Perhaps in no society has nihilism ever been as prevalent an attitude as it was in Weimar Germany; it was reflected in all the arts, and ultimately in politics. It would of course be wrong to view this nihilism as solely the product of an inflationary environment. Obviously Weimar Germany faced many other problems, particularly as a result of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles. And the nihilism of its culture grew out of the German intellectual tradition of the nineteenth century, particularly Nietzsche's corrosive critique of European civilization. But as Mann's story reminds us, we should not underestimate the role of inflation in creating the pervasive sense of nihilism in Weimar Germany. A glance at the back of an American dollar bill shows two phrases: “United States of America” and “In God We Trust.” Somehow our money is closely bound up with our political and even our religious beliefs.29 Shake a people's faith in their money, and you will shake their other faiths as well. This problem has become particularly acute in the modern world, because ours is the age of paper money, money that has to be taken on faith alone. That is why we have to put “In God We Trust” on the back of our dollars; nobody really trusts the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. In “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” Mann invites us to consider what happens to our lives when we are forced to take our money purely on faith and that faith is betrayed by the government.

Some economists and historians have been confused about the cause of inflation,30 but Mann seems to be aware that government fiscal policies are the source of the trouble. It cannot be an accident that the historical subject Cornelius is studying is precisely the beginning of modern central banking and deficit financing, and hence the origin of inflation as a tool of modern public policy: “First he reads Macaulay on the origin of the English public debt at the end of the seventeenth century; then an article in a French periodical on the rapid increase in the Spanish debt towards the end of the sixteenth.”31 Financial details chronicling the absurdity of hyperinflation are scattered throughout the story, indicating clearly that the Weimar government was flooding the German economy with paper money. For example, Cornelius is making a million marks a month, but that is merely “more or less adequate to the chances and changes of post-war life.”32

Under these insane conditions, people become obsessed with the economic facts of life and must devote all their energy just to trying to stay above water.33 Frau Cornelius feels disoriented in the most basic tasks of daily life: “The floor is always swaying under her feet, and everything seems upside down. She speaks of what is uppermost in her mind: the eggs, they simply must be bought today. Six thousand marks a piece they are, and just so many are to be had on this one day of the week at one single shop fifteen minutes' journey away.”34 Here we see how one govern ment intervention in the economy immediately leads to others. Having produced scarcities in the market with their inflationary policies, the authorities introduce new regulations to try to deal with the irrationality they themselves created. But faced with the rationing of goods, the people in Mann's story learn to get around the government's tampering with the market: “For no single household is allowed more than five eggs a week; there fore the young people will enter the shop singly, one after another, under assumed names, and thus wring twenty eggs from the shopkeeper for the Cornelius family.”35 Mann presents the characteristic inauthenticity of the world he is portraying as a direct response to government intervention in the market, which forces people to assume false identities.

Mann portrays one of the moments during an inflation Mises highlighted, the flight into real goods:36“Before the young people arrive [Frau Cornelius] has to take her shopping-basket and dash into town on her bicycle, to turn into provisions a sum of money she has in hand, which she dares not keep lest it lose all value.”37 With the value of money diminishing virtually hour by hour, people desperately search for some way to hold on to value, and that means they rush to exchange their largely fictitious money for something real, a real commodity. As Mann later depicted the dilemma of the customer in an inflationary world: “you might drop in at the tobacconist's for a cigar. Alarmed at the price, you'd rush to a competitor, find that his price was still higher, and race back to the first shop, which may have doubled or tripled its price in the meantime.”38 Thus inflation serves to heighten the already frantic pace of modern life, further disorienting people and undermining whatever sense of stability they may still have.

Mann also shows how inflation disrupts the social order by producing a huge underground transfer of wealth. People who had worked hard and put their money in the bank saw their savings become worthless almost overnight.39 Mann documents the fall of the middle class in the case of the Hinterhofers: “two sisters once of the lower middle class who, in these evil days, are reduced to living ’au pair’ as the phrase goes and officiating as cook and housemaid for their board and keep.”40 Mann shows how hard it is for these women to live with their sense of economic degrada tion; he portrays the shame and bitterness of Cecilia Hinterhofer:

Her bearing is as self-assertive as usual, this being her way of sustaining her dignity as a former member of the middle class. For Fräulein Cecilia feels acutely her descent into the ranks of domestic service.... She hands the dishes with averted face and elevated nose —a fallen queen.41

A society composed of embittered people like the Hinterhofers is soon going to face major political problems, as the rise of fascism in Germany was to show.

While many people lost everything during the German inflation, some made their fortunes by taking advantage of the new economic conditions. Mann includes among the cast of characters the kind of speculators who profited from inflation:

They lead... that precarious and scrambling existence which is purely the product of the time. There is a tall, pale, spindling youth, the son of a dentist, who lives by speculation.... He keeps a car, treats his friends to champagne suppers, and showers presents upon them on every occasion.42

Those who know how to exploit an inflationary situation can gain while others lose.43 As a result, inflation creates a topsy-turvy world. The fact that people are losing and making fortunes overnight is responsible for all the social confusions in “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” such as Cornelius's inability to tell his son from his servant. In a world in which all distinct categories begin to dissolve, a pervasive sense of relativism develops. Cornelius's convictions begin to weaken and he feels unable to take a stand against the opinions of the younger generation. When faced with the fanaticism of youth, the history professor retreats into aca demic skepticism, trying to make his lack of conviction masquerade as a form of broadmindedness:

For in one's dealings with the young it behooves one to display the scientific spirit... in order not to wound them or indirectly offend their political sensibilities; par ticularly in these days, when there is so much tinder in the air, opinions are so frightfully split up and chaotic, and you may so easily incur attacks from one party or the other, or even give rise to scandal, by taking sides.44

Worried about taking any sort of stand, Cornelius begins to ques tion his most fundamental certainties: “And is there then no such thing as justice?”45 Mann thus shows how inflation ultimately has a political effect, eating away at the basic beliefs that ground a social order. By undermining all sense of stability and value in Weimar Germany, inflation ultimately led to the rise of Hitler and Nazism.46 Mann himself later wrote: “A straight line runs from the madness of the German Inflation to the madness of the Third Reich.”47


Mann is as insightful in portraying the psychological effects of inflation as he is in portraying the economic, social, and political effects. Inflation fundamentally changes the way people think, forcing them to live for the moment. There is no use planning for the future, since inflation, especially hyperinflation, makes future conditions wildly uncertain and unpredictable.48 As Mises demonstrated, one of the most insidious effects of inflation is that it makes economic calculation much more difficult, if not nearly impossible.49 It thereby weakens the Protestant ethic, which ever since Max Weber has been viewed as linked to capitalism. What is the use of saving one's money if that money will soon become worthless as a result of inflation? As Mann shows, in a period of hyperinflation, the rational strategy is to spend your money as fast as you make it. Thus, inflation works to shorten everyone's time horizons, destroying precisely those attitudes and habits that normally make the middle class hard workers and prudent investors, that lead them to restrict their present consumption for the sake of increasing future production.

This effect of inflation explains why youth has come to dominate the world of “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” and why the older generation has lost its authority. The young are more adaptable to changing conditions, while the old are set in their ways. Hence the young cope better with inflation:

the upper middle class... look odd enough... with their worn and turned clothing and altered way of life. The children, of course, know nothing else; to them it is normal and regular.... The problem of clothing troubles them not at all. They and their like have evolved a costume to fit the time, by poverty out of a taste for innovation: in summer it consists of scarcely more than a belted linen smock and sandals. The mid-dle-class parents find things rather more difficult.50

Mann notes that inflation even changes the way people dress, but, more importantly, he sees that it alters the dynamic between the generations in society, giving the young a distinct advantage over the old. Having experienced only economic instability, the youth of Germany are more able to go with the inflationary flow.

In the person of Cornelius's servant, young Xaver, Mann por trays the perfect child of the inflationary era, the embodiment of its virtues and its vices:

He is the child and product of the disrupted times, a perfect specimen of his generation.... The Professor's name for him is the “minute-man,” because he is always to be counted on in any sudden crisis,... and will display therein amazing readiness and resource. But he utterly lacks a sense of duty and can as little be trained to the performance of the daily round and common task as some kinds of dog can be taught to jump over a stick.51

Xaver has the adaptability to changing conditions demanded by the era of inflation, but the price he pays for that is the total loss of the discipline once prized in German society. His lack of feeling for the past of course disturbs his master, the history professor; as a child of inflation Xaver is constantly plunging into the future: “Dr. Cornelius has often told him to leave the calendar alone, for he tends to tear off two leaves at a time and thus to add to the general confusion. But young Xaver appears to find joy in this activity.”52

In a world in which the young are leaping into the future two days at a time, the old become increasingly irrelevant. Econo mists have long recognized that inflation is particularly cruel to the elderly in society, especially retired people who live on fixed incomes, which cannot keep pace with inflation. But Mann shows something psychologically more debilitating happening to the older generation. In an inflationary environment, all the normal virtues of the old suddenly start to work against them, while all the normal vices of the young suddenly seem to look like wisdom. Conservatism and a sense of tradition make it impossible to respond to rapidly changing economic conditions, while the profligacy of youth becomes paradoxically a kind of prudence in an inflationary environment. Mann shows the human reality of inflation, how it alters not just economic conditions but the very fabric of everyday life, right down to the psyches of young children.53 Ellie's premature infatuation with Max is the emotional equivalent of inflation.54


In addition to all its economic, social, political, and even psychological consequences, inflation in Mann's view works to undermine the basic sense of reality.55 In an inflationary world reality begins to attenuate. For a variety of reasons, prices cannot always be raised to keep pace with inflation; hence producers are forced to cheapen their products, to adulterate them. Mann portrays a pervasive cheapening of the world in “Disorder and Early Sor row.” Even an eight-thousand-mark beer is watered down.56 Cornelius thinks of himself as a gentleman, but in his straitened circumstances, he cannot help cutting corners, even when offering cigarettes to his guests: “He... takes a box from his supply in the cupboard: not the best ones, nor yet the brand he himself prefers, but a certain long, thin kind he is not averse to getting rid of — after all, they are nothing but youngsters.”57 Typically in this inflationary environment, things end up in a state of disrepair, as normal economic channels become disrupted: “The basin has been out of repair for two years. It is supposed to tip, but has broken away from its socket on one side and cannot be mended because there is nobody to mend it; neither replaced because no shop can supply another.”58

The opening of the story is emblematic of the world Mann is portraying: “The principal dish at dinner had been croquettes made of turnip greens. So there follows a trifle, concocted out of those dessert powders we use nowadays, that taste like almond soap.”59 Cornelius and his family live in a world in which they do not have desserts anymore; they have dessert substitutes. Forced to economize by inflation, these people can no longer afford the real thing: “These consult together meantime about the hospitality to be offered to the impending guests. The Professor displays a middle-class ambitiousness: he wants to serve a sweet —or something that looks like a sweet.”60 We are all familiar with this kind of food substitute, an artificial product that is often presented as superior to the real thing, but that is in fact merely cheaper (and perhaps less fattening). Such substitutes are characteristic of life in the twentieth century, and Germany, with its advanced chemical industry, led the way in developing them, so much so that we have taken the German word for substitute, Ersatz, into our language.61

Thus, in his ultimate indictment of the monetary policies of the Weimar Republic, Mann shows how inflation contributes to the ersatz reality of the twentieth century. We have come to live in a world of plywood rather than mahogany. Things are not real anymore; we are surrounded by clever (and cheap) substitutes, mere simulacra of the real things. Mann fills up the story with artificial substitutes, from the false teeth of the children's nurse62 to the fake leather in Hergesell's shoes: “They are the tightest I've ever had, the numbers don't tell you a thing, and all the leather today is just cast iron. It's not leather at all.”63 The artificially heightened pace of the inflationary economy produces more and more irrationalities, including increasing deception in the mar keting of commodities. Much of what is traditionally and mistakenly regarded as the duplicity of capitalism is in fact the result of government intervention in the market in the form of tampering with the money supply.64

To be sure, one cannot blame everything on inflation. Already in the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville had noted the tendency of democracies to produce a cheapening of products:

The handscraftsmen of democratic ages not only endeavor to bring their useful productions within the reach of the whole community, but strive to give to all their commodities attractive qualities that they do not in reality possess. In the confusion of all ranks every one hopes to appear what he is not.... To satisfy these new cravings of human vanity the arts have recourse to every species of imposture.65

Thus, even before the paper money inflations of the twentieth century, one could detect a movement of the modern economy toward the simulacrum in place of the real thing. Tocqueville reminds us that economic developments often have political causes, and many of the tendencies Mann portrays in “Disorder and Early Sorrow” can be attributed to the abrupt democratiza tion of Germany after World War I. But Mann shows how inflation works to hasten and heighten these tendencies, forcing people to economize by accepting substitutes in a desperate attempt to maintain the shadow of their former standard of living.

With his novelist's feel for the texture of everyday life, Mann senses the connection between the world of inflation and the world of the modern media.66 The government creates an illusion of wealth by tampering with the fiduciary media; the communication media similarly contribute to the creation of an all-pervasive world of illusion. Writing in the 1920s, Mann is already aware of how modern technology and the increasingly mediated character of modern life create new possibilities of deception. Every medium of communication is potentially a medium of miscommunication. In the masquerades of Bert and Ingrid, the telephone has become an important medium:

The telephone plays a prominent part:... they ring up any and everybody — members of government, opera singers, dignitaries of the Church — in the character of shop assistants, or perhaps as Lord or Lady Doolittle. They are only with difficulty persuaded that they have the wrong number.67

The telephone is an example of how the modern communication media create an illusion, the illusion of immediacy. Bert and Ingrid enjoy the sensation of seeming to be in touch with the great public figures of their day, but in a sense, they are as much deceived as the people they try to fool. They think that they are dealing directly with these famous people, but in fact the tele phone stands in between them; otherwise their deception would not work. Thus any relationship they establish over the phone is inevitably phony; as the German idiom for “wrong number” more forcefully suggests, they are “falsch verbunden,”68 falsely connected.

In a telephone conversation, one does not see the person one is talking to, but one has the illusion of being in his presence. Similarly, in a paper money economy, one does not see gold anymore, but the currency gives the illusion of the presence of wealth. The increasingly mediated character of the modern economy, especially the development of sophisticated financial instruments, allows the government to deceive its people about the nature of its monetary policy. As we saw in discussing Percy Shelley, when a government tries to clip coins or debase a metal currency, the results are readily apparent to most people. By contrast, the financial intermediation involved in modern central banking systems helps to shroud monetary conditions in mystery. Initially the techniques of deficit financing and monetization of debt conceal from the public what is happening to the money supply. Just as the jokes of Bert and Ingrid work only because the people they call cannot see them, the Weimar government's inflation worked only because it was hidden behind the smokescreen of modern central banking; with paper money one cannot at first see how the currency is being debased.

Mann sees the pervasive inauthenticity of the modern world even in the music of the young people, who listen not to real live performances, but to mechanical reproductions on the gramophone. In the “new world” created by the gramophone,69 music from all over the globe begins to blend together, and one loses sight of national origins,70 or the distinction between authentic folk songs and popular hits.71 Seeming to make music from the whole world simultaneously available, the gramophone creates a false aura of cosmopolitan sophistication and thus adds to the sense of cultural relativism: “They move to the exotic strains of the gramophone... : shimmies, foxtrots, one-steps, double foxes, African shimmies, Java dances, and Creole polkas.”72 Everywhere one looks in “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” one sees illusions substituting for reality. The flight from the world of reality is evident in Xaver's fanciful escape into the world of the cinema:

With his whole soul he loves the cinema.... Vague hopes stir in him that some day he may make his for tune in that world... — hopes based on his shock of hair and his physical agility and daring. He likes to climb the ash tree in the front garden.... Once there he lights a cigarette and smokes it as he sways to and fro, keeping a lookout for a cinema director who might chance to come along and engage him.73

Here Mann anticipates what was to become the Hollywood myth of being discovered in Schwab's drugstore. Such dreams are bred by an inflationary economy, which corrupts the ambitions of youth. The young man fantasizes about making his fortune in the movies because he can imagine becoming wealthy only by mak ing one big killing. In an inflationary environment, one must dream of becoming an overnight success because the slow steady way of amassing a fortune by working hard and saving simply will not work. As Mann senses, the moving picture is the perfect art form for the age of inflation: a kinetic art for a kinetic era. He shows how the movies are already saturating everyday life; in his choice of cigarettes, Xaver smokes “a brand named after a popular cinema star.”74 In the illusory world fostered by inflation, an image on a screen now works to shape a man's desires.


The references to telephones, gramophones, and motion pictures in “Disorder and Early Sorrow” build up a sense of how mediated modern life has become, how much we are surrounded by artificial reproductions and representations of life. Ultimately the issue of representation becomes central in Mann's story. He is portraying the reconception of representation that occurred in the twentieth century, a major shift in ways of thinking that can be correlated with the shift to paper money and inflationary policies. In the older sense of money, a banknote referred to something outside itself. Under the gold standard, a dollar bill represented a fixed amount of gold, on deposit somewhere and obtainable on demand. That is what it meant to have a currency backed by gold—a paper banknote was redeemable in terms of a real commodity, namely gold, something that had independent value. But in the modern era of paper money, a banknote just represents another banknote. One dollar bill can merely be exchanged for another dollar bill, but such a transaction has no point anymore, once no real commodity backs the currency. In the modern paper money system, money does not represent anything outside itself; money only represents itself.75

This change in the concept of representation in paper money sounds like the prototype for the new concept of representation in modern art. Modern artists pride themselves on their discovery of the principle of non-representational art. Ask a modern painter what his scrawls on the canvas represent and he will likely reply: “My painting doesn't represent anything external to it; it represents itself.” Growing out of the nineteenth-century idea of art for art's sake, this attitude in modern art denies that the artist need refer to the external world; his works can exist within the self-contained world of art itself. The world of modern paper money is a similarly closed system. A currency with no commodity like gold backing it thus provides the model for the self-referentiality on which modern art prides itself.

In a case like this it is difficult to determine cause and effect. It would be simplistic to claim that once the world went off the gold standard, modern art became non-representational.76 One suspects that both developments have their roots in something deeper in modern life, perhaps the democratization Tocqueville traces. Still, it is worth considering that a change as fundamen tal as the switch from a commodity-based currency to inconvertible paper money might have widespread implications for a society, and might even affect basic cultural attitudes. As money ceases to refer to anything real anymore, the traditional idea of referentiality is undermined. And once art becomes severed from reality, artists turn to such notions as the surreal and the hyperreal. The movement known as postmodernism grew out of the non-representational turn in modern art.77 We would have to go well beyond the boundaries of Mann's story to explore fully the relation between inflation and postmodernism.78 One of the central notions of postmodernist theory is the idea of the sim ulacrum, which we have already seen developed in “Disorder and Early Sorrow.” According to one definition, a simulacrum is a copy for which there is paradoxically no original.79 But that is exactly the concept of paper money. Under the gold standard, the dollar bill used to be the representation, for which a fixed amount of gold provided the original. In this situation, one could easily distinguish the representation from the original—the original was bright and shiny, while the representation was green and crumpled. But that kind of distinction is no longer possible in the world of pure paper money. One dollar bill merely represents another dollar bill—we are in a world of all copies and no originals.80

This is exactly the kind of world Mann portrays in “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” a world in which reality is constantly threat ening to dissolve into mere representations of reality. Cornelius is distressed by his son's admiration for and imitation of the actor, Ivan Herzl:

Bert has entirely succumbed to Herzl's influence, blackens the lower rim of his eyelids... and with youthful carelessness of the ancestral anguish relates that not only will he take Herzl for his model if he becomes a dancer, but in case he turns out to be a waiter at the Cairo he means to walk precisely thus.81

In choosing an actor as his model, Bert ends up imitating an imitator, and thus threatens to become a mere simulacrum of a human being. What strikes Cornelius about Herzl is his total lack of authenticity; as an actor, he always seems to be putting on a show, and hence not to have any reality of his own: “It all, no doubt, comes from his heart, but he is so addicted to theatrical methods of making an impression and getting an effect that both words and behavior ring frightfully false.”82 Already in the 1920s, Mann prophetically saw the inauthenticity coming to pervade modern society and modern culture. He linked this development to the modern communication media, but understood its link to fiduciary media as well. Indeed, his model for the loss of authenticity in the modern world is the loss of the reality of money that hyperinflation causes.

I can offer one particularly apt example to try to corroborate the connection I have been drawing between the epistemology of twentieth-century art and debates over paper money. At the core of postmodernism is the tendency to make the act of representation problematic. Postmodern images call attention to themselves, to the fact that they are merely images. In traditional art, the medium is as it were transparent; the artist wants us to look through his act of representation to the thing being represented, and hence does everything possible not to call our attention to his medium. But the postmodern artist throws a wrench into the process of representation, foregrounding his medium and thus making us concentrate on the act of representation itself, on the fact that we are watching something being represented. A famous example of this technique among the Surrealists, forerunners of postmodernism, is René Magritte's This Is Not a Pipe (figure 1). One of the many ways of reading the inscription on this clever painting is: “This is not a pipe; this is merely a representation of a pipe.” Magritte short-circuits any tendency we might have to confuse the representation of a thing with the thing itself by explicitly calling attention to his act of representing the thing.83 The painting leaves us with a lingering sense of the inadequacy and even the duplicity of all acts of representation.


Figure 1

“This Is Not A Pipe”

Source: Original title La Trahison des Images (Ceci n'est pas une Pipe). Ren é

Magritte. Oil on canvas 60 x 81.3 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Figure 2

Milk-Tickets for Babies, in Place of Milk

Source: David Wells, Robinson Crusoe's Money; or, the Remarkable Financial Fortunes and

Misfortunes of a Remote Island Community
(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1876), p. 57.

Magritte's painting, done in 1928-29, seems a perfect exam ple of avant-garde art, the kind of work that one would think could only be produced in the twentieth century. And yet it bears a striking resemblance to a famous cartoon by Thomas Nast, drawn as an illustration to David Wells's book, Robinson Crusoe's Money, first published in 1876 (figure 2). Wells's book attacks the paper money inflation brought about by the American Civil War. He uses a Crusoe fable to expose the folly of the common people's belief in the reality of paper money:

But the latter term was conceded to be but a mere fic tion of speech and a bad use of language, for every intelligent person at once saw that a promise to deliver a commodity... could not possibly be the commodity or the thing itself, any more than... the picture of a horse [is] a horse.84

Nast's illustration brilliantly captures the heart of this argu ment by surrealistically confusing things with representations of things. Like Magritte, Nast reminds us that a picture of a cow is not actually a cow, but he is not making a merely aesthetic statement. He is drawing a more serious analogy between the duplicity involved in artistic representation and the duplicity involved in the way governments print money and forcibly establish it as legal tender, an analogy embodied in the parallel: “This is a Cow By the Act of the Artist” and “This is Money by the Act of Congress.”85 Experiencing the Union Greenback inflation, Nast was led to question the reality of representation without benefit of having read Nietzsche or any of the other theorists who led to postmodernism. As in “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” an inflationary environment raises the issue of the authenticity of representation in a way that provokes an artist to think about the illusions involved in his own craft.


It turns out, then, that Georg Lukács was right about Thomas Mann. His ability to portray bourgeois life in his fiction extends to an ability to portray its economic foundations and precondi tions.86 And thus Mann's work can be analyzed in terms of sophisticated economic theory. But in the case of “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” we have seen that the problems in bourgeois society Mann portrays are not the ones typically analyzed by Marxist economists, but rather those the Austrians highlight. With his attention to the consequences of inflation for daily life, Mann provides a useful supplement to the Austrian economic analysis of the phenomenon. Mises and Hayek help us understand the economics of what happened in Weimar Germany; Mann gives a sense of how it felt to ordinary people, and in that way may serve to convince readers of the full horror of inflation.87 The story portrays the same world that modernist texts usually do, but offers a different explanation of the characteristics of that world. Mann traces the feeling of modern man that the ground has been pulled out from beneath his feet, not to some metaphysical principle of human life itself, but to the effects of a specific government policy, namely inflation. Moreover, he suggests that the inauthenticity of modern life, which has often been blamed on capitalist practices such as advertising, is more properly viewed as the result of the inflationary environment created by government. An analysis of “Disorder and Early Sorrow” in light of Austrian economics shows that many of the problems characteristic of modern life are not, as literary critics tend to claim, the product of free enterprise, but rather of that very government intervention in the economy opponents of capitalism are always demanding.

The twentieth century could be called the Age of Inflation,88 and “Disorder and Early Sorrow” suggests how this fact is related to the prevailing sense of inauthenticity in the modern world, the sense of a lack of reality and a loss of value. It would of course be wrong to attribute this development purely to the effects of infla tion. After all, we can find a sense of unreality in the literature of countries which never went through anything like the German hyperinflation. But it would be impossible to find any modern country unaffected by inflation, not even Switzerland; in the modern world, we are always talking only about relative rates of inflation; inflation is the most pervasive economic fact of our time. “Disorder and Early Sorrow” thus leads us to ask how much of an impact this all-pervasive economic phenomenon has had on modern literature and ways of thinking. Taking our cue from Mann, we begin to question whether inflation may in fact be an even more insidious phenomenon than we have realized, fundamentally altering our world and the way we view it. Thus, in a way very different from Marxist approaches,89 Mann suggests a connection between the spiritual history of the twentieth century and the economic, making us wonder whether the world began to seem unreal when, in the inflation generated by governments, money began to lose its reality.