Thursday, November 02, 2006

The History Man

As so many of the political and ethical problems of the present day have their roots in what took place in Europe during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, I’ve been thinking it would be instructive to go back and look at the life and work of one of the European writers who in a sense encapsulates the whole of that era. The writings of the great German novelist and philosopher Thomas Mann are nowadays relatively neglected - though Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain can be obtained without too much trouble, the English paperback translation of his great Joseph tetralogy is currently out of print, while the English version of his 600-page essay Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen) is nowadays available only in libraries or very special second-hand bookstores. While the German text of the latter is available, it has to be ordered not directly from Mann’s publisher, S. Fischer, but from scattered bookstores across Germany.

What makes Mann such a rewarding figure for study in the present world situation is the fact that within his personality and sensibility he confronted the two major political movements of his time - Nazism and Communism - in terms which reveal their naked, all-too-human content, casting aside the ideology for the sake of the immediate, existential significance of these two contemporary pseudo-religions. Of Nazism, Thomas Mann knew the very roots, being acquainted with the work of fascist contemporaries like Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, who applied the nationalist and mystical doctrines of Dostoyevsky and Solovyov to German realities. On the other hand, the process of going straight to the heart of the matter was made easier for Mann by the ironic circumstance that his own brother, the novelist Heinrich, eventually became an adherent of Stalinism.

In his biography of Mann, Anthony Heilbut shows how the German author navigated between these two apparently opposing but inwardly related modes of demagogic irrationalism, in a kind of crabwise movement that outmaneuvered the similar navigations of contemporaries such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence and Bertolt Brecht. While Mann’s work and preoccupations show affinities with all five, Mann avoided the traps into which he might otherwise have fallen by maintaining throughout his lifetime an inner conversation between different and often clashing elements in German history and culture, never opting for one side or the other in an endless debate on the meaning and nature of democracy. In his resistance to Nazism - and to Stalinism - he showed the way towards a new Germany and a new Europe. Though his vision has not been realized, and the problems that face Europe and America remain in many respects unchanged, despite all the illusions of the postwar hubris, his work still retains indications as to what might be achieved if the lessons of the past were to be truly assimilated and learned. In his fiction, Mann did not preach, but showed and told:
“In the final analysis, the novel is not historical, but I myself am.” His roots were romantic, bourgeois, Goethean, and Wagnerian. His great link to modernity was “my experience of romanticism’s self-transcendence in Nietzsche.” What Fischer found provocative or “fascinating (in the bad sense)” was the irony of “parodistic conservatism by means of which I as an artist hold myself suspended between eras.” An artist’s “vocation, his nature, consists not in teaching, judging, and pointing directions, but in being, doing, expressing stages of the soul.”
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