Commentary Magazine


Literature & Political Responsibility Apropos the “Letters of Thomas Mann”

1.

Literature and Political Responsibility—a couple that have acquired some notoriety in the history of thought both by their mutual attraction and their ceaseless quarrels. Indeed, the two have been married and divorced so often that the invitation to dwell with them is unlikely to be received with a sense of relaxed serenity; and the irritable antiquity of the entanglement only increases the sense of discomfort. The more one reflects upon this problem, the surer one becomes that it would have qualified for admission with that French Surrealist poet Robert Desnos who once proclaimed (and Surrealism relished such imperial gestures): “The questions that I am willing to discuss are all unanswerable.” And like many another insoluble problem, this too has long since moved into a drafty halfway house situated between the banal and the unmanageably complex. Yet imagine a student who has been kept in ideal ignorance of the problem’s bothersome history. Would it not be easy enough to keep him occupied for a very long time with respectable works of literature without his discovering anything problematical in the relations between writing and politics? Would he, reading or seeing Shakespeare’s history plays, feel that the poet’s blatant political partisanship is to the detriment of his poetic or dramatic effects? Indeed, that it produces any difficulties whatever? Or would he, if he studied the literature of the German Middle Ages, sense any betrayal of the pure Muse in the poems with which Walther von der Vogelweide, animated by the utmost partiality, joins the political controversies of his age?

Surely, history abounds in the kind of literature that wears its politics, as it were, upon its sleeve, the right or the left sleeve, leaving him who is bent upon examining the relationship between the two with nothing to question, interpret, uncover, unmask; he would be defeated by the obvious. For there are, again and again, artistically effective alliances between literary talent, sometimes even genius, and social or political engagement. We need only think, apart from those just mentioned, of the young Schiller, of Heine, Büchner, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Zola, Ibsen, the young Gerhart Hauptmann, Heinrich Mann, Sartre, Camus, to give a few of the more conspicuous examples, and not to compose a list of men of letters whose names, by virtue of the distinction of their style and the vivacity of their political ideas, ought to be included in the manuals of both literature and political thought: some of the French Encyclopedists, for instance, or Burke, or de Maistre, or many among the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia, or George Orwell—the kind of writers, in fact, who prompted Thomas Mann in that deeply troubled period of his life when, overwhelmed by this unquiet problem, he wrote Meditations of an Unpolitical Man, to say in anger and in untranslatable German that literature was identical with politics; in untranslatable German, for he meant “literature” as distinct from “poetry”; and only in German is—or perhaps rather was—the word Literatur, as opposed to Dichtung, capable of conveying that contemptuous pride of the spirit with which Thomas Mann invested it. Gone for good, it would seem, are those German days when the radical distinction between literature and the poetic spirit made some sense, yet it was only fifty years ago that one of the most intelligent and certainly one of the most gifted German writers could insist upon this opposition. As again his Letters1 fascinatingly and often disconcertingly show, he was to take it back, and then take back a little of the taking back, and then once more modify or altogether deny the original position, and so on—a “so on” that bears witness not so much to the changeability of Thomas Mann’s mind as to the refractory character of the problem of “literary politics.”

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In the years of the First World War he put aside the—as yet slim—manuscript of The Magic Mountain, to do as Hans Castorp, the hero of that novel, later did when at last he broke the spell of the sick mountain to become a soldier on the battlefields of Flanders. Thomas Mann, pen in hand, fought the battle for the fatherland on the pages, ever growing over the years, of Meditations of an Unpolitical Man, a book as tortured, inspired, sinister, enthusiastic, and German as much later, and yet not so much later, was to be Doctor Faustus. Germany is the protagonist of both books. In the first it is a Germany that defends her soul and her aristocratic genius of music, poetry, and irony against the blatantly political rhetoric of “democracy,” “civilization,” and “progress”; in the second a Germany that, in the same conflict, has perverted her soul and loses it. Soul defended or soul lost: he would be a poor reader who did not perceive that the author’s love of the lost soul had become even greater, nourished as it was by an abundance of pain and dismay.

Meditations of an Unpolitical Man is the last great document of the conservative mind—a mind, in this case, both patriotically German and European, and at the same time endowed with a sensibility that clearly recognizes the historical decadence of the virtues and values it struggles to uphold. It is based upon the belief that “literature,” the literature produced by, for instance, Thomas Mann’s brother Heinrich, the Settembrini, the Zivilisationsliterat, is the upshot of the French Revolution, the literary aspect of democratic politics, and the destructive invader of the domain of the unpolitical inner spirit expressing itself in music, poetry, and metaphysics. This was in 1916. Was there, then, after the Second World War, any reason to assume that from the soil of that “unpolitical” domain grew not only the genius of the German nation but also its wickedness? Was it not simply “the Junkers and industrialists” who had “put Hitler into power”? An emigré German teacher from Australia asked such questions and wanted to be assured by Thomas Mann that, for instance, neither Hegel nor Nietzsche could be held responsible for the National Socialists’ catastrophic misbehavior. Well, yes and no, answered the writer who was just about to complete Doctor Faustus. His reply of December 29,. 1946 concedes to the teacher that “as a teacher” he is right in allowing his young Australians to immerse themselves in the minds of such German philosophers. And yet he, Thomas Mann, had scribbled a doubting hmm in the margin of the letter. For does this dismissal of responsibility not reduce the stature of the intellect, does it not make the works of the mind look more innocuous than they are or want to be? For that Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche contributed to shaping the German mind and its dealing with life and the world is as undeniable as the fact that Martin Luther had something to do with the Thirty Years’ War, whose horrors he explicitly took “upon his neck” in advance.

Even giddier in renunciation, more eager in taking back the “unpolitical” doctrine of Meditations, is a letter of April 18, 1945 to his “brother in spirit—or cousin at any rate,” Hermann Hesse. It combines his thanks for The Bead Game with his announcement that for some time now he himself has been working on Doctor Faustus, a novel that has, he believes, a very close kinship to Hesse’s book. And yet, he seems to imply, it differs from it in one important point: The Bead Game is the product of an imagination “hovering” ironically above the conventional opposites. Therefore, he says, it is not surprising that it is a plea for the mind’s freedom from political ideologies. Very well, but what is meant by “mind”? “If ‘mind’ is the principle, the power, which desires the good; if it is a sensitive alertness toward the changing aspects of truth, in a word, a ‘divine solicitude’ which seeks to approach what is right and requisite at a given time, then it is political, whether or not this epithet sounds pretty. It seems to me that nowadays nothing alive escapes politics. Refusal is politics too; it is a political act on the side of the evil cause.”

Who, one is tempted to wonder, is the speaker? Of course, the radically converted author of Meditations of an Unpolitical Man. How radically converted? And what, in the case of an artist, does “conversion” mean? In 1930—long after he had abandoned his conservative nationalism and made himself an advocate of the Weimar Republic, even of Democratic Socialism—he proclaimed, in an essay on “Culture and Socialism,” that indeed he no longer held the opinions of Meditations, but its “true insight” (Erkenntnis) remained undeniably right. How is this? Is there a way of distinguishing between “opinion” (Meinung) and “true insight”? There is; although it is impossible to do it in one sentence, even if it is helpful to recall another one, written by him in 1923 in his oration on the “German Republic.” “I recant nothing,” he said then, “I renounce nothing essential. I spoke the truth, my truth, then, and am speaking it now.” Nevertheless, he himself needed the four volumes of Joseph and His Brothers to show what he meant: namely that “divine solicitude”—Jacob was its master and Joseph overdid it sometimes with charm and wit—consists in fathoming which variation on the constant theme of the Spirit was demanded by any particular moment of Time, this medium, ever-changing in its claims, of the Spirit’s journeying toward its full realization in the mind and heart of Man. It is, in the last resolve, a Hegelian configuration of history, and, of course, there may occur errors in man’s assessment, at any given historical instant, of the exact station of the Spirit.

Thomas Mann, in that letter to Hesse, was in error if, with his critique of the unpolitical intent of Hesse’s The Bead Game, he wished to imply that his own Doctor Faustus was a political book. True, he inserted (and “inserted” is unfortunately the right word) an exhortatory passage into Faustus—Leverkühn’s last speech, the oration the composer delivers in the idiom of the Lutheran German Faustbook of 1587 in which he confesses his pact with the Devil, and introduces the event that is not to take place: his playing of the score that reveals his “breakthrough,” by means of the most rigid musical calculation, into the sphere of ecstatic genius—the bargaining price paid by the Devil. It is a madman’s speech, and ends in the madman’s paralytic collapse, and contains those political sentences, the only ones which in that masterfully written scene may give rise to some doubt about the speaker’s musical accomplishment: they strike an utterly wrong note. Leverkühn, there, takes the guilt of the age, in Luther’s phrase, “upon his neck.” For in abandoning himself to his genius’s “infernal drunkenness,” he disregarded the commandment that a man should be “sober and vigilant” and prudently see to it that here on earth an order is established that would provide the proper soil for beautiful works to grow from, works that would not, at their source, be in need of devilish prodding.

This is completely out of character: not even in the remotest nook of Leverkühn’s unconscious could there ever have stirred the impulse to become a supporter of “causes.” (Not to ask the unanswerable question, what the ingredients are of such “soil.” They are certainly not social justice or political morality. The mere thought of the slaves of Greece, or the serfs of the Middle Ages, or the riches of the aristocrats for whom Mozart made his music, does away with such noble surmise.) But it is not only out of character, it is altogether foreign to the historical philosophy that pervades the whole novel. The “danger of sterility,” so intensely felt by the artists of the epoch, “is not to be blamed on social conditions,” says the Devil in his conversation with Leverkühn, and, as so often in this interior dialogue, he is right. Certainly, these “conditions” may be truly felt to be incompatible with the self-sufficient harmony of a work of art. But this is “accidental”; for “the prohibitive difficulties of the work lie deep in its own nature. It is the historical development of the musical material itself which has turned against the idea of harmony.” No, if a category has to be found, then Doctor Faustus is not a political but a historical novel. Mario and the Magician is, by comparison, a simple political allegory, and yet its author said of it in one of his letters that he did not like “to have this story considered a political satire.” In the case of Doctor Faustus he certainly did not dismiss a political interpretation as energetically, but wherever he invited it in the work itself, the work itself refused to endorse the invitation: nowhere, for instance, is it less successful than in the task of illuminating the intended parallel between “my friend” and “my fatherland” (the narrator’s last words in the novel), between the story of Leverkühn and the story of Germany. It was Thomas Mann’s will that it should, but the book knew better.

“The book wanted it so.” The words occur in a letter to Agnes E. Meyer, the American recipient of many a letter from him, and concern Fitelberg, the formidable Jewish impresario who makes an important episodic appearance in Doctor Faustus (the Riccaut scene, Thomas Mann called it once, referring to the celebrated anti-French scene in Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm) . The correspondent seems to have expressed the fear that there might be some anti-Semitic rejoicing at the figure of Fitelberg. “Curious,” Thomas Mann replies, the same worry was expressed by his son Klaus “when I first read the chapter to the family.” And to make matters worse for the Jews, their other “representative” in the book, “the Fascist Breisach,” is also far from being an endearing character. Surely, political considerations would have made it advisable to avoid even the slightest suspicion of anti-Semitism. But “the book wanted it so.” For clearly it was Dichtung, not Literatur.

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2.

Literatur versus Dichtung, literature which for Thomas Mann was politics, versus poetry which within that juxtaposition enjoyed the reputation of being unpolitical, and this despite Shakespeare and Walther von der Vogelweide and Bertolt Brecht (quickly to drop the name that at the present time is likely to be thought of first in any discussion of literature and politics, and who may indeed be this problem’s most problematical problem child)—well, despite Shakespeare and Walther and Brecht and many another perpetrator of political poetry, there is, of course, a formidable amount of Dichtung, and certainly of lyrical poetry which might be put before that imaginary student; and if we are sure that he was not disturbed by the obvious political affections and disaffections of certain literary works, he will now remain equally unworried by the blissful absence of any “politically responsible” thought from the mind of, for instance, Keats as he lyrically addresses the Grecian Urn or the Nightingale; or of Blake as he laments the sickness of the Rose; or of Goethe as he strolls through rhymes and woods with the sole purpose of enjoying his purposelessness:

Und nichts zu suchen,
Das war mein Sinn.

(And naught to seek,
That was my goal)

And even if it becomes the fashion here and there, a fashion created by moles of the mind burrowing deep into the “structure” of lyrical poems so that its analysis might bring to light the “social motivations,” and therefore political bias, indeed a kind of insidious class-subconscious, from the layers below the humus in which “pure poetry” has its shallow roots, we may still slip into the hands of our unsuspecting reader a few poems of Bertolt Brecht himself: the one, for instance, which sings in the most private of lyrical moods of lovers’ embraces, and how quickly they are forgotten, much more quickly than the white cloud that hovered in the blue September sky above the scene of love; or that lyrically perfect Mahagonny song of the Crane flying with the Cloud, allegories of lovers who are utterly given up to their love and lost to the world of sober, dependable conduct, and who are yet utterly affirmed by the poet in the manner only good poetry or great love are capable of affirming. It is the poem ending with the line that may well be the consummate message of social irresponsibility:

Wohin, ihr?—Nirgend hin.—Von wem davon?—
Von alien
. (You, up there, where are you off
to?—Nowhere.—Away from whom?—From all.)

“Away from all”—it is undeniable that this cry of Brecht’s lovers is also the voice of poetry itself in some of its most exquisite phases: namely when, in Yeats’s words, the Imagination is brought

. . . to that pitch where it casts out
All that is not itself; . . .

or when the poet is entirely immersed in the business of making a poem, the phase that Goethe, rather angrily, once defended against any kind of moral or social interference: “Certainly, it is possible that a work of art is of moral consequence, but to demand of the artist moral intentions and goals is to spoil his craft.” Small wonder that Plato, despite the excellent relations his great mentor Socrates entertained with Apollo and the Muses, emphatically crossed out the “and” between “Poetry” and “Social Responsibility.” To look back then for a moment to the locus classicus where, together with many other problems, this too received its first and stubbornly enduring articulation: Poets, Plato thought, were by their very nature debarred from being responsible citizens of the ideal Republic. Divinely or demoniacally inspired as they are, they may claim citizenship in some kind of musical Civitas Dei, or rather Civitas Musae; yet the summit of Parnassus is no breeding ground for civic virtues. Where civic virtues count, poets disturb the peace. Poetry and social responsibility? You might just as well try to turn Zeus himself into a husband faithfully abiding by the virtuous conventions of monogamy.

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If time is the test—no, not necessarily of the truth but of the power of an idea—then that celebrated ruling about the poets in Plato’s Republic has passed it: again and again this doctrine, in one form or another (and mostly without its expositors being conscious of its source), has found acceptance: not only with the rulers of some republics, but also with the poets themselves, sometimes even in poetical households boasting famous political commitments. Platonic, following from the Republic directly or inversely, is both the absolute aestheticism of 19th-century French coinage and, vice versa, Hitler’s ostracizing what he regarded as degenerate art. And surely, it is an echo from Plato’s Republic that is discernible in the French Symbolists’ emphatic and emphatically anti-Saint-Simonist abrogation of any social contract that may have been concluded in the past between Art and Life (an abrogation through which artists exhibit a kind of Platonic and “unpolitical” beggars’ pride); and Platonic indeed was, before them, Schopenhauer’s definition of Art as the exercise of minds rendering with the materials of this world, with words and colors and sounds, the visions obtained in another sphere, the sphere, ironically enough, of Platonic Forms, sights attainable only to those who have freed themselves temporarily of all ambitions, purposes, social responsibilities of this Will-driven life.

Plato was present, malgré lui, in the young Nietzsche’s belief that only the purest aesthetic contemplation of the world can justify the world’s existence: “only as an aesthetic phenomenon is the world forever justified,” the most audacious artistic theodicy ever attempted; and Plato has, not without Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s mediation, a say in Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, the story of the young artist who—not quite unlike Rimbaud, Mallarmé Valéry, Rilke—was painfully convinced that he had to lose his citizenship in the commonwealth of honorable and virtuous men in order to reach the heights of art. Again, Plato altogether dominates the scenery of ideas that Mann has arranged for the action of Death in Venice: beginning with the moment when the “classical” writer Aschenbach, struck by the “irresponsible” passion for the beautiful boy Tadzio-Phaedrus, socratically warns himself, by dreamily warning the youth, that although beauty is “the lover’s way toward the spirit,” it is “only the way, little Phaedrus,” and issuing in the catastrophic recognition that, along that way, “we poets are bound to go astray,” and will, worshipers of beauty that they are, be destroyed by their idol; and the more they aspire to the classical role of educators, the more blatantly ludicrous will “our magisterial style” look one day: it will be seen as “folly and false pretense,” and farcical “all the honors bestowed upon us”; and “to teach the young by means of art is a dangerous thing and ought to be forbidden” because Form, the preoccupation of artists, is “in its innermost core indifferent to good and evil.” All this, and more, is prefigured in Plato’s banishment of the poets from the company of morally dependable citizens.

Equally clear is the link that connects Plato’s pronouncement about the poets with the repeated declarations of the Russian Communist party against an art “alienated” from the social realities and responsibilities of Soviet society. For while the totalitarian states have tried to prove—to Plato, as it were—that there could, after all, be an art “shouldering” its prescribed political obligations (and the art that did such shouldering was the well-known and excruciatingly well-behaved “Social Realism” in both the German and the Russian tyrannies), poets, from the Parnassians’ l’art pour l’art to the Symbolists’ absolutely “pure poetry,” have been passionately intent upon making the highest artistic virtue out of precisely that which Plato regarded as the ineradicable vice of poetry: its detachment from the body politic, its unreliable ambiguities and ironies vis-à-vis the seriousness demanded by the moral life, and its helpless exposure to the seductions of fantasy, play, and pure form: in brief, its tendency to climb up to “that pitch where it casts out all that is not itself.” Les extrêmes se touchent, and the point at which the extreme anti-aesthetic philosophy of the totalitarian state and the extreme aestheticism of Absolute Poetry meet, is that passage from Plato’s Republic.

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Caught between these extremes of literary theory and practice, many critics, interpreters, and teachers of literature were unfortunately inclined to follow suit, and either ran with the hares of aesthetic “escapism” or hunted with the hounds of the totalitarian ideologies. Few, alas, remained immune from the infection. For critically to receive a work of literature as if it were truly nothing but an aesthetically organized assemblage of words on a page, or a sequence of lines containing varying or recurrent “images,” or a concert of rhythmically ordered sound and artistically transmuted fury, means uncritically to accept a strange, if not pathological, belief in sheer formal perfection which, on the part of the artist, may lead to the frantic illusion that all contents are but tiresome obstacles impeding the poet’s progress toward absolute poetry. The form is the content: it was this creed that Nietzsche, the very inventor of the “theodicy” of aestheticism, called perverse. For he knew that the artist may become obsessed with form as content—just as if the thing to be given form did not exist, or had to be annihilated rather than molded; and Baudelaire, so often himself under the spell of such aesthetic despotism, wrote of le goût immodéré de la forme, “the immoderate taste for form,” which bred “disorders, monstrous and unheard of.”

To look upon such formal excess as the norm, indeed to derive from the “monstrous disorder” a method of literary criticism, means to accept the extreme situation that, at the other end, has called forth the politico-ideological judge of literature who absurdly measures literary creations by degrees of their “realism,” or, worse still, by the relative conformity or dissent of the political “opinions” they seem to utter or imply. The philosophy of the type of criticism which many years ago was New represents merely a novel aspect of that betrayal of which, in a classical treatise, Julien Benda accused the intellectuals: their readiness to give a hand in the operation which removes from the fabric of man’s social and political arrangements the spiritual conscience—that conscience which must be one of the chief inspirations also of literary criticism if it is to justify the important place we have allotted to it in our higher education; and the subtlest variant of the surgery that severs the link between aesthetics and ethics, between the disciplined life of the imagination and the social-moral reality may well be to encapsulate literature in a sphere all its own. For literature is certainly many things, but few of the things that literature is would be worthy of our attention if the spiritual conscience were altogether absent from it. Then indeed Plato would have been not so wrong in preparing its expulsion from the commonwealth of men; and yet again not so right either: for literature would then simply be trivial, and would not matter, and the hypnotic glimmer of deranged profundities and the blinding glitter of broken mirages would try in vain to make up for its lost meaning and beauty. W. H. Auden, not so long ago, charmingly repudiated this radical aesthetic operation, and in doing so, he spoke with the voice of poetry itself, a voice unmistakable by its power to please and to shock. You hope, the poet in that poem says to himself, you hope that your works, aesthetically successful as they are, may one day serve as the grand justification of your existence, no matter how otherwise you have conducted it. But will this apology be accepted? Perhaps not. For

   God may reduce you
on Judgment Day
   to tears of shame,
reciting by heart
   the poems you would
have written, had
   your life been good.

Nonetheless the problem persists, and seems to have invaded the consciousness of poets themselves with ever greater force. Nietzsche, in saying that there must have been a time when the moral and the aesthetic domains were one (Wittgenstein, in philosophic daring, maintained that they are identical), was surely more regretful about their present dissociation than confident about the indefinite past of their oneness. This anticipatory spokesman of many modern poets knew neither Kierkegaard nor Keats, but he would have supported much of what these men wrote about the moral dubiousness of the aesthetic state; indeed, he did, as it were, write it himself. There are numerous Nietzschean utterances on art and artists that are almost indistinguishable from certain passages in Kierkegaard’s writings; and even a thorough student of Nietzsche would, if he did not happen to know that it was by Keats, readily believe that it was Nietzsche who spoke of “the poetical Character” as having “no character,” as taking “as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen”; and: “What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet.”

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3.

To move from a poet and a poetic thinker to a writer of novels and letters: in his Meditations of an Unpolitical Man Thomas Mann summons witnesses from every corner of the world’s literature to make his case for the “Chameleon Poet” and against the prodigal brother Heinrich, the Zivilisationsliterat, the political moralist. Has he, Thomas Mann asks, really not enough self-knowledge to see the lie in his politico-moral “commitments”? Not to recognize that, as a writer of literature, he will forever remain an “aesthetic opportunist” to whom the aesthetic success of his sentences is bound to matter more than the success of the moral or political opinions those sentences may advocate? “Bellezza radicalism”—this is what Thomas Mann calls the irresponsible politics of his aesthetic brother seized with political enthusiasm. In the denunciation of this bellezza radicalism Thomas Mann is most formidably inspired. Some people, he says, allow themselves to be etymologically misled into taking radicalism in literature for depth. But no, it is “a pretty superficiality, a cult of the generous gesture which at times assumes an almost choreographic quality.” And indeed, the Zivilisationsliterat once exclaimed: “Liberty—that is the Dionysian dance of Reason.” And Thomas Mann, calling this “ballerina politics,” quotes Goethe who, in his Italian Journey, said: “Liberty and equality can only be enjoyed in a state of giddy lunacy.”

The radical littérateur, even by declaring his political hostilities in stylistically ennobled frenzy, surreptitiously wants his enemies to be impressed by the style of his attack, and even in indicting the world for its state of misrule and mismanagement, he wants the accused to be fascinated by the phrasing of his indictment. And even the littérateur has in him enough of the disposition of art to know that the artist still woos with his aggression, seduces with the chastity of his language, and seeks the admiration of those he damns with his last judgments. Therefore, there is always a subtle kind of insincerity in his proclaimed opposition to the “world” as represented by the society of his time. He wishes to please. What ultimately matters to him is success—not necessarily, of course, in the crudest but certainly in the most fastidious sense of the word: success as that delicious contentment achieved in the perfection of a sentence, the happy appropriateness of a cadence, the conclusiveness of a metaphor. Beliefs and opinions—what are they to him if not building material for the great aesthetic artifice, “matter to be consumed by form,” as Schiller once defined the artistic process. What pleases the artist more than one conviction, is the splendid clash of two. Indeed, he does take “as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen,” and even if sometimes he chooses politically to commit himself and to forswear the “culinary” ambition to give pleasure, he may, perhaps even to “the general regret” of his followers, a little later be compelled to follow the natural call of art and settle down once more “in the domain of the agreeable and the pleasurable.” Bertolt Brecht announced this in 1948 as his intention after all the alienating and political moralizing of the preceding years. There is little political authenticity to be found in the aesthetic sphere. Therefore, it would seem that, vis-à-vis all forms of moralizing politics, it befits the artist to remain skeptical and ironical rather than “committed,” quite apart from the question of whether, if he truly be an artist, his would not be more a tragic or comic reading of the human lot than a political and ideological one.

Turgenev once confessed that he felt always a little lost when asked to speak his own mind on this or that question, and deprived of the chance of hiding behind the exchanges of imaginary characters: “Then it always seemed to me that one might just as well and with equal right assert the opposite of what I am saying. But if I talk about a red nose or fair hair, well, then the hair is fair and the nose is red, and no amount of reflection will reflect it away.” It is even possible to say that a man, capable of authentically speaking his own mind in a direct, straightforward way, would not and could not create epics or dramas or novels where the truth of the work’s totality—“the whole is the truth,” said Hegel—always limits, or modifies, or even refutes the truth presented or uttered by any particular character in it. This makes it almost symbolically right that we know nothing or little about the individualities of some of the greatest poets, of Homer or Aeschylus or Sophocles or Shakespeare; and helps to explain why Dostoevsky so often had to out-shout—to the point of hysteria—the many voices speaking in him and therefore in his novels when he wished to speak with his own religious, moral, or political voice (can he who has conceived the story of the Grand Inquisitor still believe in the Church, in any Church?); and why Tolstoy felt he had to cease writing novels in order to become a religiously and ethically integrated person.

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Great works of art are made after the creative principle of Nature herself; and Nature, wrote Schopenhauer, “does not do as bad writers do who, when they show a knave or a fool, are so full of clumsy moral purpose that behind every such figure we glimpse, as it were, the writer himself, disavowing their minds and words, and warning us with a raised finger: ‘This is a knave, this is a fool: do not listen to what he says!’ No, Nature does as Shakespeare and Goethe do, in whose works every person, and be it the Devil himself, is, while he speaks, in the right; because he is conceived so objectively that we are compelled to sympathize with him: for, like a product of Nature, he has grown from an inner principle by virtue of which everything he says and does appears natural and therefore necessary.”

Beheld with the eyes of art, the world appears sub specie necessitatis, under the aspect of Necessity. Art’s idea of man remains more “natural” and “chthonic” than “social,” even where the discourse is about man in society. Therefore it may happen that the artist’s imagination makes a mockery of his declared political intentions; and this not by means of ideological inconsistencies creeping into his work but, far worse, through the imagination’s insistence upon its own autonomous truth and knowledge; and what the imagination knows is the denial of all great political or moral expectations. There is about the characters, for instance, of Balzac, or, at his artistically best, even of the “literary scientist” and political reformer Zola, or indeed of the revolutionary Bertolt Brecht—there is about their successfully created characters a quality of natural destiny and monumental inevitability which reduces to all but irrelevance any hope of radically affecting their good or evil by changing their social functions through a changed social environment. Certainly, it may well be the writer’s wish to show his characters as pawns in a social game the rules of which he abominates and desires radically to change. Yet the better he is as an artist, the more likely it is that his imagination will defeat his purpose by setting these figures in their course more like celestial bodies whose revolutions appear indifferent to anything except their center and fields of gravity. Look how much trouble Brecht took to make his Mother Courage or his Galileo “politically relevant,” and how little his trouble was rewarded!

We can be sure he did not know that, to all intents and purposes, he quoted Thomas Mann’s Meditations of an Unpolitical Man (he would probably have been rather alarmed if he had known) when in July 1934, in Svendborg, he talked to his friend Walter Benjamin about the nature of his political engagement: “Often I imagine a tribunal,” he said, “a tribunal, questioning me: ‘What about it? Are you really in earnest?’ Then I should have to admit: ‘No, not altogether. I think far too much of artistic matters, of what profits the theater, to be entirely serious about the political.’” This is admirable, and it is true. Equally true is what he said afterward: that the really great poets are those for whom there is no rift between the “art” and the “commitment.” As an example of such “Substanz-Dichter,” as he called them, that is, poets creating from the undivided integrity of their inner substance (Schiller called them “naive” poets), he mentioned Gerhart Hauptmann. Well, yes, Hauptmann. He should have, to be equal to the grandness of the question, named Aeschylus or Sophocles or Shakespeare. And then Brecht said: “Assuming you are reading an excellent political novel, and after you have finished it, you learn it was by Lenin. You would change your mind, would you not, about Lenin as well as about the novel, and not in favor of either.” Thus speaks a politically committed poet, but a poet happily not committed enough to make his intelligence immune from the ironies with which the relationship between literature and social responsibility is so amply afflicted.

Walter Benjamin, at that time, had just written his essay on Kafka, and asked Brecht to read it. For weeks there was no response. In the same conversation in which Brecht spoke of the imperfections of his political commitment as a poet, Kafka was at last talked about. It emerged that Brecht thought he was a great writer—“like Kleist, Grabbe, or Büchner”; and, like these, ultimately a failure, one who suffered shipwreck. Why? At this point Brecht proved to be an extraordinarily perspicacious critic. He answered: Because Kafka was meant to be what Confucius was: he had the disposition and the gift of a great teacher, a prophet; yet as there was for Kafka—and here I enlarge a little on Benjamin’s sketchy diary jottings—no society to teach or prophetically to inspire, his Confucian parables became “literature,” “mere” literature. (“If I were a Chinaman,” wrote Kafka once to Felice, and “but at bottom I am a Chinaman.”) The parables grew into “art,” even into novels, and thus lost their ultimate seriousness. Yet from the beginning, probably on account of the historical absurdity of a teacher without a school to teach, of a prophet without a people to guide, they showed signs of wanting to become what they did become: literature. “They were never quite transparent,” said Brecht. This is also the reason why the apparent precision of Kafka’s style is so deceptive: it is the precision of an exact dream confusingly dreamt in a place between prophecy and art.

There are not many interpretations of Kafka of which it seems certain that Kafka himself would have found them revealing or even interesting. This is one. When Brecht said it, he did not and could not know that Kafka was indeed tortured all his life by the consciousness of the two half-realities of which his world appeared to be made up—without the two half-realities ever amounting to anything felt to be wholly real. There was the half that was his writing, that hateful unreal thing to which, as he once put it in a letter to his fiancée, he was bound with invisible chains; and there was the sphere of his “real” responsibilities: his profession which he hated, his city which he much disliked, the woman he would not marry, the house he would not inhabit, and the garden he was not to plant. There was, in fact, an “unreal” literature and an “unreal” life. What, after all, must be called his life, seemed to him without meaning and therefore unreal; to find meaning, he gave himself to literature—like someone, as he once said, who, equipped with only a lamp and pen and paper, withdraws forever into the deep, dark vault of a cellar. But as in the cellar, in his tomb, there was no life, literature too became meaningless. It is an extreme case of that laceration which, on the one hand, has ever more acutely raised the question of the writer’s responsibility and, on the other hand, has made it ever harder to answer it. For where “meaning” and “reality,” “literature” and “life,” are felt to be irreconcilable, the one can hardly be responsible to the other; responsibility presupposes correspondence. In order for literature to be truly responsible, there would have to be such correspondence; and it would have to be the correspondence between language and reality—a correspondence whose questioning appears to have become the foremost concern of both our philosophers and our writers.

What to us has become so deeply questionable was a certainty for Confucius. When once his disciples asked him what he would do first if he had to administer a country, he answered: “The first would be to correct language.” “Surely,” they said, “this has nothing to do with the matter. Why should language be corrected?” The Master’s answer was: “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and arts will decay; if morals and arts decay, justice will go astray; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence language must not be allowed to deteriorate. This matters above everything.” What a grand definition of the writer’s social responsibility, and what confident faith in the very correspondence between language and reality, and therefore between literature and life! Shall we ever regain the confidence of both this definition and this faith? It is the very condition of literary responsibility, and on it depends the future of our liberal education.

_____________

 

The years 1889-1955—this is the span of time over which the Letters of Thomas Mann were written. They record, among a multitude of other and not quite so grave concerns, also his progress from the position of the “unpolitical” artist to what he took to be a political platform. Progress? The trouble is that during those decades the terms “political” and “unpolitical” “lost their names,” and if not their names, their meaning. What was meant by politics in 1900, by 1940 had ceased to be applicable to the public conduct of nations, above all the German nation. In German, certainly, the word “politics” was by that time an archaism. When Thomas Mann claimed to be an unpolitical writer, the claim made good sense and was, moreover, supported by the very cast of his sensibility. It was destined to be violated by the violence of the age; and gently chiding Hermann Hesse in 1945 for his refusal to be “political,” Thomas Mann sang out of tune, but only because the tune was no longer singable. For truly, what can “politics” mean to a mind—a mind as fine as his—coming face to face with what to his humanity must have looked like the failure of the human enterprise? Thomas Mann, with the great courage and often with the rhetoric of great moral resolution, avoided saying so as a man speaking in letters to other men. Yet his writing said it in Doctor Faustus, the novel that cancels man’s heavenly apotheosis at the end of Goethe’s Faust, takes back the celebration of the “subjective harmony,” the harmony between soul and world, in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and unweaves the configurations of faith in that carpet of Confucius.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955, selected and translated by Richard and Clara Winston, introduction by Richard Winston, Knopf, 690 pp., $17.50. This volume is a well-chosen, well-introduced, and, apart from some mistakes, well-translated selection. Well-translated: this is to say that it is not only faithful to the meaning of the original (and this is saying a great deal in view of the sheer faultiness of the available translations of Thomas Mann's works), but also fluent and “readable,” although this is a term of praise that one would like to avoid; for to say of a book that it is readable seems not much better than to say of a meal that it is edible. But here it is meant to be applause, even if the occasional comparison with the original reveals some mistranslations. One of the more “grievous” mistakes is, however, almost Thomas Mann's own fault, or at least is due to the excessive wariness with which he speaks in an early letter of the possibly autobiographical nature of Death in Venice. The correspondent's question appears to have been: Is the homoerotic disposition “accessible” to Mann? No, “hardly,” “not even conditionally,” or “hardly in exceptional circumstances” (“und ich darf sagen, sie ist es mix kaum bedingter Weise”) . The translators convey what may well be a supportable opinion of their own but is the opposite of Thomas Mann's complicated phrase and meaning:“. . . insofar as it is accessible to me (and I may say, with few reservations, that it is)” (p. 102). But I have no doubt that Richard and Clara Winston are, like F. D. Luke who recently translated Tonio Kröger and other stories of Thomas Mann, translators whom Thomas Mann's publishers, assisted perhaps by a Foundation, should give the time necessary for at last doing him justice in English. This will be impossible as long as translators' time is paid not in terms of hours but of words or pages. Mann's urbanity; his ironical and gentlemanly shyness in approaching the truth; the precision of which his controlled diffidence is capable; his long-windedness which breathes elegance into apparent awkwardness—this has, after all, a superb correlative in English: Henry James. Translators of Thomas Mann ought to be given the leisure to immerse themselves in James's prose.

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