Saturday, October 2, 2021

Thomas Mann on Democracy and Literature

Since I recently read and reviewed Thomas Mann's vast novel The Magic Mountain, I was interested in Christopher Beha's NY Times review of Mann's World War I-era political tract, Reflections of a Non-Political Man. This was written during Mann's rather brief period as a gung-ho German nationalist, and he later renounced a lot of this. But here is what he said in 1915:

Central to Mann’s argument in Reflections is a distinction between “civilization” and “culture.” The terms are often used interchangeably, but Mann insists that they “are not only not the same, they are opposites.” Civilization “involves reason, enlightenment, moderation, moral education, skepticism,” whereas culture represents “the sublimation of the demonic.” As such, it “belongs entirely to the other side … a deeper, darker, impassioned world.” Every nation has a distinctive culture, but not all nations are civilized. Culture tends to prize its particular local character; civilization seeks to make itself universal.

What did Mann find so objectionable — above all, so un-German — about democracy? It epitomized “the imperium of civilization.” Putting the power of the state in the hands of the people requires making them into rational, enlightened citizens — whether they like it or not. Here he quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “All states are badly organized when people other than statesmen must be preoccupied with politics.” To Mann, democracy means “the politicization of every ethos.” Personal questions are turned into social questions; moral problems are turned into political problems; art is turned into “social literature.” . . .

Nietzsche is of course a big influence on all of this, but the distinction between Civilization and Culture was all over German thought in that period. Civilization was portrayed by many writers as something inauthentic, over-refined, and feminizing, too much drawing room manners, too much academic theorizing, not enough heart and blood.

The criticism that democracy politicized everything has been made by many critics since the French Revolution, and I think there is something to it; after all, the US today has counties with rival Democratic and Republican farm stands. But on a deeper level I would say that all societies are deeply political, and we just had kings and aristocrats for so long that people stopped seeing their cultural power as anything worth commenting on.

But though he theorized about the superiority of Culture, Mann recognized that his sort of work, the highly refined literary novel, was a product of Civilization. This is what fascinated me most about Beha's review. I have lately been writing about the falseness of so much contemporary literary discourse, because we are always looking for “authentic” voices who speak for this or that marginalized group. Mann understood that novel-writing, as a Civilized activity, necessarily involved the writer in its compromises and required him or her to learn its artificial conventions. He never tried to claim that any of his work was pure Culture, or pure anything, he only strove to express something that felt authentic and true within the narrow confines allowed by this very refined form.

For the whole of his career, from Buddenbrooks to his final, unfinished novel, Felix Krull, Mann was fascinated by the figure of the artist, an ambiguous character who stands “between two worlds … at home in neither.” In Mann’s rendering, the artist wields a vital power, one not entirely under his control, and as such poses a kind of risk to a culture that nonetheless depends on him. There is something unsavory, even sickly about the artist, something not entirely on the side of life. (Mann, who was bisexual, closely associated his own artistic impulses with the dangerous secret of his same-sex desire.)

Above all, the artist is a nonpolitical figure, because he refuses to be put in the service of some larger program. The artist “creates just what he is, what corresponds to his own aesthetic judgment and need,” without concern for what society at large demands. Since Mann believed that democracy politicized everything, he believed there could be no place for true art in a democracy: “What is necessary [in a democracy] is at bottom not art at all but the manifesto, the absolute manifesto in favor of progress.” Instead of the artist, democracy has the Zivilizationsliterat — an unwieldy German compound noun translated as “civilization’s literary man.”

Real art appears in this conception as a sort of wild card, something that cannot be entirely tamed by Civilization, that cannot be made to serve any political program. This insistence that art must be anti-political is one idea that stuck with Mann through his anti-Nazi phase and his American exile. He fled Germany partly because he refused to let the Nazis tell him what to write, but he equally refused to write anti-Nazi tracts for his American hosts. Mann wrote:

Authorship itself has always seemed to me to be a witness to and an expression of ambivalence, of here and there, of yes and no, of two souls in one breast, of an annoying richness in inner conflicts, antitheses and contradictions.


I think that the most important aspects of the human spirit — religion, philosophy, art, poetry, science — exist beside, above and beyond the state, and often enough even against it,

I strongly agree with this. Art, like sex and humor, cannot be tamed, cannot be made to suit your political program. You can try, and you can produce things like art that exalt whatever you want to exalt, from kings to corporations. But art draws on places beyond. And yet this does not mean that art springs from those places fully formed; if it is to communicate anything it must be shaped by conventions and fit into understandable shapes. It must wear the clothes of Civilization. But to have real value it should be smuggling something wild and disturbing beneath them.

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