Thomas Mann on the Artist vs. the State – The New York Times
Thomas Mann was just 26 years old when the publication of his first novel, “Buddenbrooks,” placed him in the front rank of German writers. He relished this position, but over the next decade produced little else to justify it. He was nearing 40 before he completed another great work, “Death in Venice,” a novella about an aging writer whose fascination with a beautiful young Polish boy keeps him on vacation even as a cholera epidemic descends. Mann started almost immediately on a second novella that would reproduce “Death in Venice”’s theme — the strange allure of “decadence,” illness and death — in a comic mode. He was working on this companion piece in 1914, when the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand set into motion the events that would begin World War I.
Like many educated Europeans of the time, Mann didn’t quite believe that the continent would descend into all-out war, but he greeted the possibility with a certain amount of excitement. When the worst arrived, he set aside the comic novella to perform a “war service, using thought as a weapon.” This took the form of a long essay, “Thoughts in Wartime,” in which he expressed “the need for a European catastrophe”: “Deep in our hearts we felt that the world, our world, could no longer go on as it had.”
By the time Mann published the essay, in November 1914 — alongside a historical study of Frederick the Great and Voltaire that doubled as a defense of German militarism in its contest with French rationality — most observers recognized the war as a moral and human disaster, and the response to this intervention was scathing. Among the harshest critics was Mann’s older brother, the novelist Heinrich Mann, who published a historical study of his own, ostensibly about Émile Zola and the Dreyfus Affair but really a defense of liberal democracy and a declaration of the politically engaged writer’s responsibility within it. Heinrich didn’t mention his brother explicitly, but in a passage on creative maturity he speculated that writers “who make their debut in their early 20s” are “likely to dry out young.”
Mann spent the bulk of the war years stewing over this offense and composing an extended self-justification, “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man,” which he completed just in time for the armistice. Recently reissued by New York Review Books with an introduction by Mark Lilla, “Reflections” is a strange, frequently off-putting book, a 500-page assault on democracy, enlightenment and reason that is also an act of petty score-settling, written in a frothing tone completely at odds with the stately irony for which Mann is remembered. And yet, at the moment, the book feels not just worthy of our attention but somehow indispensable.
Central to Mann’s argument in both “Thoughts in Wartime” and “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.
In Mann’s view, German culture’s special fate was to exist in opposition to the civilization of Latin Europe, with its “Roman idea of unification.” That unifying idea had, over the centuries, taken the form of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church and the Napoleonic army. Now it took the form of liberal democracy. “I am deeply convinced,” Mann writes, “that the German people will never be able to love political democracy … and that the much decried ‘authoritarian state’ is and remains the one that is proper and becoming to the German people, and the one they basically want.”
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.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Mann placed literature firmly in the camp of democracy and civilization. Indeed, literature is “the same as democracy and civilization,” he writes in a hyperbolic generalization that is typical of the book’s rhetorical pitch. Needless to say, he is not referring to his own writing here; by “literature” he means “the social novel in the public interest,” a genre exemplified by the works of Zola (or those of his brother Heinrich). Literature is “pure, rational, humanitarian and noble.” It seeks to educate and enlighten its readers, to make of them better citizens. This puts it in opposition to “art,” which is irrational and reactionary, an expression of that darker, impassioned world from which culture emerges.
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.”
Civilization’s literary man treats culture as a means, rather than an end in itself. He believes that “art must propagate reforms of a social and political nature.” Civilization’s literary man is not an ignoble figure, exactly, but what he creates is not art as Mann understands the term. “Authorship itself has always seemed to me,” Mann writes, “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.” Civilization’s literary man has no time for ambivalence or inner conflict, which get in the way of progress and social reform.
One of the strange things about reading this half-forgotten book is that Mann has come down to us in history, not unfairly, as a consummate Zivilizationsliterat. He’d always had a bit of that tendency — a fact he notes with typical ambivalence in “Reflections” — and in later life he eagerly embraced it. After the war, he threw his support behind the new Weimar government. In an essay titled “On the German Republic,” he acknowledged that “democracy can live on a certain plane, the same plane as that of German romanticism,” though he insisted that he was “not recanting anything” from his wartime writings. (Both “Thoughts in Wartime” and “On the German Republic” are helpfully included in New York Review Books’ reissue.)
With the rise of fascism, Mann’s ambivalent acceptance of democracy became full-throated support. He was an early opponent of Nazism, which led to his exile from Germany. He landed eventually in the United States, where he gave speeches assuring Americans that the German spirit was entirely compatible with democracy. His time in America made Mann one of the first truly global literary figures, a status he cultivated, among other ways, through the careful oversight of his works’ translation into English. “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man” was the only one of his major works to remain untranslated in his lifetime. (The current translation, by Walter D. Morris, first appeared in 1983.)
Reading the book now, one would have to conclude that Mann was right to be embarrassed by it. But this is in its way part of the point. The book is a political intervention staged by a fundamentally nonpolitical man — or, as Mann himself puts it, “the work of an artist, and not a work of art” — and the result is as clumsy as one might expect. As political ideas, the thoughts expressed in it are useless (or worse). But only someone who believes that politics are everything will conclude that this makes the book itself useless.
After completing “Reflections,” Mann returned to his “Death in Venice” companion novella, which grew into his gargantuan masterpiece, “The Magic Mountain.” It feels significant that his two greatest works were written immediately before and after “Reflections,” because both deal in many of the same ideas, treated aesthetically rather than rhetorically, expressed with ambivalence, through the profound irony that was Mann’s signature effect. As Lilla notes in his introduction, Mann the novelist remained an artist to the end, even as Mann the public figure embraced the role of spokesman for civilization. “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,” he writes in “Reflections,” and it is a belief he never gave up.
In the light of history, much of “Reflections” can be dismissed easily enough, but the idea that we do damage to life’s most important elements when we use them instrumentally, for political ends, poses a real challenge to our moment, obsessed as it is with the political responsibility of the artist. Much about Mann’s book will be obscure to contemporary readers, but civilization’s literary man will be immediately recognizable. He (or she) is the novelist as social conscience, writer of earnest op-eds, signatory of open letters, eager panelist at PEN events, tweeter of #resistance memes. When Heinrich Mann praises Émile Zola as a spokesman for democratic values, he is praising him not as an artist but as civilization’s literary man, and when a recent Pulitzer Prize winner takes to the pages of The New York Times to praise writers who “texted voters, donated to activist causes, got into bitter fights on social media and wrote Op-Eds attacking the Trump administration,” he is doing the same.
It is an odd sociological fact that the demand to be reasonable, responsible and progressive is these days mostly made of homegrown writers. Over the past two decades, American literary culture has eagerly embraced a procession of international novelists — W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard — whose works obviously derive much of their power from their proximity to the dangerous, the illiberal, the demonic; the foreignness of these writers seems to exempt them from being read through the lens of U.S. domestic politics. And yet our fascination with them suggests that some part of us still recognizes the need for art that says at once “yes” and “no,” art that expresses internal contradictions rather than programs for reform, art that does not stand unambiguously on the side of health and life.
Mann was wrong to think that such art could not exist within a democracy. Indeed, liberal democracy at its best can be a great safeguard of the freedom to create such art. But he was not wrong to worry over democracy’s tendency to enlist art for its own ends, and he was not wrong to call for artists themselves to resist it.