Art has always been associated with the lure of a more perfect and pleasant world than the one in which we are forced to live, as well as with the pangs of conscience resulting from preferring the former to the latter. But no doubt both the lure and the pangs intensify whenever the outside world is particularly bad. In the past two years, the need to look to novels, or TV shows, or music as compensation for our isolation has been especially strong, even as the world itself has seemed to degenerate under the pressure of a global pandemic and a series of political and social crises. In this context, it isn’t hard to understand the fascination elicited by the recent NYRB Classics reissue of the English translation of Thomas Mann’s rambling and controversial Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man.
The book was originally published in 1918, as Germany was reeling from the destruction of World War I. Mann, who had entered his forties, had already achieved literary fame on the strength of his first novel, Buddenbrooks. In 1914, he had thrown his considerable weight behind the war effort. And yet Reflections, arriving at a time when the urgent needs of the defeated country might have seemed to outweigh any other concerns a writer would have, barely mentions the war. Instead, it is an almost five-hundred-page tirade against attempts to subordinate art to political imperatives, a passionate defense of what Mann calls “the unpoliticizability of the absolute.” The argument hinges less on a narrow definition of politics than on an extremely exalted notion of art. By politics, he means not just the business of statesmen but the seemingly nobler mission of civilizing a people, of realizing their common humanity as manifested in universal virtue, universal happiness and universal freedom. Often, when he speaks of the politician he simply means his brother Heinrich, who was also a novelist. Yet novels such as his brother’s did not count as truly artistic to Mann. Art, in his eyes, serves a higher and more important goal altogether. It does so because it better corresponds to that in us which is truly human—not our social nature but our infinitely complex personality, irreducible to the leveling statistical units of political administration or the abstract ideas of “civilization’s literary men.”
Viewed in this light, Mann’s book might be seen as a gesture of resistance to the impoverishment of human experience that, along with the War, seemed an almost unavoidable side effect of modern, rationalized society. Yes, human beings are social beings, and social life needs coordination of actions and distribution of resources. But human beings are not merely social beings. We are not the coldly rational actors of administrative science, nor are we the tireless political agitators every social movement hopes for. Often, we are more like Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, half-consciously stumbling into political activities but constantly haunted by bourgeois mediocrity and flights of romantic fancy. Or we are like Melville’s Captain Ahab, hell-bent on a task pursued not for the good of his crew but purely out of vengeful monomania. Surely nothing good can come from simply ignoring this. If art, and especially literature, performs any form of moral service, it does so by alerting us to the difficulties of being moral—by teaching us what Lionel Trilling called moral realism. Art that eschews this task in favor of moralizing forfeits, as Becca Rothfeld recently pointed out in Liberties, one of the greatest contributions of art to public life.
Reflections can be read, almost, as an argument for a kind of radical compassion, an acceptance that real people are rarely ideal political subjects, and that this constitutes not just our deficiency but our most important virtue. Some have held up this argument as an attack avant la lettre on the intolerance of contemporary “cancel culture.” Mark Lilla, in the book’s preface, quotes Mann’s scathing remark about the intolerant moral zealot: “He imagines himself justified, yes, morally bound, to relegate to the deepest pit every way of thinking that cannot and does not want to recognize what glitters so absolutely for him to be light and truth.” Such a passage, Lilla opines, “could have been written today.” (Absolutely, one might respond, but by whom?) In the New York Times Book Review, Christopher Beha notes, likewise, that Mann’s defense of “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.” It is hard not to read Beha’s endorsement as a way of enlisting Mann as a critic of the supposed stifling of debate and experimentation by today’s uniform political culture, as decried by last year’s infamous “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s, which Beha edits. (Lilla signed the letter.)
And yet, as few commentators neglect to point out, recruiting Mann for contemporary debates is not without risks. The way the book incorporates its context already indicates the problem; it is impossible not to flinch at Mann’s equation of higher, aesthetic impulses with the German national character, and of merely political motives with Germany’s enemy, the French. As he tellingly puts it: “An intellect that is ‘resolved’ to be active in favor of enlightened world liberation, world improvement, world happiness, does not long remain ‘politics’ in the more abstract, figurative sense; it is immediately so in the strict, real sense as well. And—to ask the question again foolishly—what kind of politics is this? It is a politics that is hostile to Germany.” The high civilizational ideals of Heinrich Mann and others found their most perfect embodiment in the French cultural sphere—in the Enlightenment philosophes or in the work of Romain Rolland. But they couldn’t remain in that sphere: essentially concerned with universal social betterment, they would necessarily attempt to translate themselves, first into the internal purification of French society during the revolution, then into the subsumption of most of Europe under those ideals, first by Napoleon and then again by the Allied Powers.
Mann’s defense of the war effort on these grounds embroiled him deeply, perhaps against his will, in the politics of the day. It led to a tenuous but undeniable affinity between him and the so-called Conservative Revolution—a loose group of right-wing intellectuals in Weimar Germany who would eventually have their own equally tenuous but equally undeniable affinity with the Nazis. In “Thoughts in Wartime” (1914), for instance, Mann settles accounts with prewar Europe, a “ghastly world that no longer exists—or will not exist once the storm has passed!” It is not hard to imagine someone reading this, and Mann’s likening of art to war, which he calls “a purification, a liberation, and a tremendous hope,” and subsequently being drawn to the celebration, in Ernst Jünger’s enthusiastic war memoir Storm of Steel (1920), of the “alien and harder world” born in the trenches of the Western Front. Even though the paths of these two writers were moving in very different directions, they seemed to cross here, for a brief moment.
Such passages highlight the real difficulty for contemporary readers of Reflections: Mann seems clearly to distance himself from any attempt to separate the book’s abstract arguments from its concrete historical stakes. To his mind, there was no doubt that true art had found more fertile ground in Germany than in France—despite spectacular outliers such as Flaubert—because of the willingness of the Germans to tolerate contradiction, mysticism, even what some might call barbarism—the very things that civilization sought to eradicate. But if politics, due to its universalist aspirations, must necessarily aim to realize itself everywhere, and if that aim had presently taken the shape of the French encroachment on German soil, then Mann’s defense of the nonpolitical would oblige him to support the war effort. In fact, for Mann the preservation of the artistic spirit required not only verbally combating the gallicization of German culture, nor even just temporary acts of military resistance against France. More fundamentally it required a constant refusal of the central political vehicle for such French ideas: democracy.
If all this follows from Mann’s conception of the tension between art and politics, then it will not be possible to simply point out the flaws of the book and selectively retain the weapons it might provide against the perceived excesses of contemporary political culture. As much as Mann challenges moral zealotry, he implicitly poses an even more dire challenge to those who would resuscitate his defense of nonpolitical art today. Is it possible to do so without eminently political—that is, illiberal and antidemocratic—consequences?
And yet, how could anyone possibly think that the inference from aestheticism to illiberalism is as airtight at Mann takes it to be? We are so used to thinking of our modern democracies as radically pluralist that it can be hard to see why they wouldn’t be able to accommodate those few who want to retreat from political life. Isn’t the whole point of liberal democracy that it allows us to reconcile a public defense of egalitarianism with purely private commitments to aristocratic aestheticism?
Mann emphatically did not think so. The freedom at which art aims—the highest, absolute kind of freedom—was, to his mind, simply too radical. Mann’s most frequent name for this freedom is irony. The one who engages non-ironically with the world takes up a position in it, makes a judgment on its value: these shoes are uncomfortable, this city is too busy, this country is unjust. By taking up one perspective, they blind themselves to others: the shoes are worn down by years of hard labor; the city contains multitudes; the unjust country breeds both hardened resisters and eccentric aristocrats. True freedom is freedom from a particular attachment to the world, which prevents us from seeing every other way of making sense of it. It is the freedom of the artist who refuses to take up a position within the world: “One must completely understand that someone who is not used to speaking directly on his own responsibility, but who is used to letting people and things speak—that someone who is used to creating art, never takes spiritual and intellectual things completely seriously, for his job has always been rather to treat them as material and as playthings.”
Politics, on the other hand, absolutely demands seriousness. It demands that one attach oneself to universal principles. Perhaps in the past such principles could have included an aristocratic proviso that certain people were not subject to them. But at least since the French Revolution, the universal nature of those principles is no longer up for debate. Modern politics, if it is to be justified, must necessarily aim to realize the freedom and happiness of everyone equally—it must be democratic. You can no longer be for or against democracy as a matter of political principle: you are either a democrat, Mann thought, or you are resolutely nonpolitical. He chose the latter. This choice might not immediately imply, or even allow, political resistance to democracy (except, supposedly, when such resistance is necessitated by French military aggression). But it does, he thought, imply a certain aesthetic contempt for it, and for politics in general insofar as it flattens out the distinctiveness of truly original ideas:
There is no political originality. One takes sides, and one may only say, “We believe,” or “I, too, believe.” This stamps the political sphere, therefore, as inferior, because it is a nonpersonal sphere; in it opinions prevail, and opinions do not confer rank. Political opinions lie on the street: Pick one up and attach yourself to it, and to many, possibly to yourself, too, you will seem more respectable than before, but this is based on illusion.
We can begin to see why Mann’s irony goes much further than Trilling’s moral realism—why, indeed, the latter would have seemed to him the most grotesque self-delusion. The moral realist pretends that literature is free to explore the complexities of living a moral life. But in so doing, they tacitly presuppose a moral point of view. They are, in effect, blind to their own blindness. Perhaps American liberal pluralism offers a semblance of the ironic, multi-perspectival view that Mann is advocating for art. It pretends to give voice to a multiplicity of worldviews, to give each its proper due, to explore in detail the difficulties that arise from their attempt to coexist. But it takes the imperative of this coexistence for granted—takes it too seriously, so to speak. If all we look for in the novel are the difficulties of characters struggling to be moral, we lose sight of one of the greatest insights the novel has to offer: the appeal of not being moral at all, or rather the guise of utter rightness in which the immoral so often presents itself to us. We would misread Sentimental Education if all we derived from it were frustration at the failure of Frédéric Moreau to properly join in the revolutionary fervor of 1848. Instead, what the novel shows us is the equal pull that political engagement and romantic irresponsibility can have—not taking sides in favor of one but allowing us to feel the full impact of both. Only in this way, Mann might argue, are we fully free to choose between them, instead of surreptitiously being pulled toward one or the other. As he puts it, quoting Schopenhauer: in the exemplary novel, “every character, even if he is the devil himself, while he is on stage and speaking, is right; we are drawn to his side and are forced to sympathize with him because he is grasped so objectively.”
Reflections often reads like a caricature of reactionary aestheticism, the rambling of someone who, despite wanting to be the “master of opposites,” was incapable of accepting that we can inhabit opposite perspectives at various times, democracy in the public square and irony in the study, without needing a grand meta-narrative to reconcile them. For us today the democratic point of view is so self-evident that the thought of dismissing it seems absurd—or perhaps we are so thoroughly ironical that we switch between the democratic and ironic perspectives as a matter of second nature, without thinking twice about it. Many of today’s critics of political or moralistic literature are, as a matter of course, not only committed democrats but often more or less card-carrying leftists. Are all these people, myself included, simply confused?
Mann himself quickly came to see that his early equation of irony and illiberalism had overshot the mark. As early as 1922, he was passionately declaring his allegiance to the fledgling Weimar Republic—an allegiance that he found, in part, by no longer identifying democracy solely with the godless French, but also with that great American container of multitudes, Walt Whitman. And during the Third Reich Mann became, from his exile in California, the self-conscious voice of a more inclusive and humanist Germany that, however, he never sought to absolve of the risk of slipping into the horrors of totalitarianism. Some critics, perhaps those with little initial sympathy for Mann’s aestheticism, have dismissed such political outpourings as opportunism on the part of an antiquated aristocrat trying to stay relevant in the modern world. Lilla, in his preface, suggests a more charitable interpretation: “Thomas Mann eventually learned that political freedom and artistic freedom are compatible. But he never abandoned the conviction that artistic freedom can serve as a check—quite literally, a reality check—on the claims of politics.”
But the strongest appeal of Mann’s reflections on irony and democracy, so it seems to me, is not due to the idea of irony as a reality check. It is not, in fact, due to any particular idea of Mann’s at all. Rather, it stems from the fascination of following the lifelong struggle of someone who realized the dangers of irony—of both aristocratic self-importance and Dionysian self-annihilation, of letting the devil be right—and yet refused to give up his allegiance to it. Of someone who was forced to reckon with the precariousness of the artistic attitude, yet doggedly strove to find a place for it in a world that no longer accepted it as a matter of course. For all its hyperbolic self-assurance, Reflections already testifies to an awareness of this precariousness. After all, the vehemence with which Mann refuses democracy can only stem from his keen sense of the extreme pressure, social as well as logical, to accept it. More important, of course, is the fact that any irony worthy of that name cannot deal in rigid opposites, and so the playfulness of irony had to contend with an irresolvable relation to its contrary: complete earnestness. Art, that is, is never just playful, but “serious in play and in all seriousness plays a game of form that by deception, brilliant imitation, and earnest illusion, deeply shakes people with ineffable sobbing and ineffable laughter.”
Of course, such a blending of opposites might be said to be an inherently ironic exercise. This is how Søren Kierkegaard, that most famous dissector of the aesthetic attitude, saw it. Judge Wilhelm, his spokesperson for the ethical point of view in Either/Or, levels precisely this accusation against his aestheticist friend in their exchange of letters: “Every mood, every thought, good or evil, cheerful or sad, you pursue to its farthest limit, yet more in abstraction than concretely, so the pursuit is itself more like a mood, from which nothing results but the knowledge of it.” From the ethical point of view, wanting fully to know each perspective on the world, freeing oneself from the limits of any one position, necessarily entails not drawing the practical consequences that are the real truth of each of them. The aesthete faces a choice, then, between either falsifying all possible perspectives on the world or limiting himself to a single one.
Mann must have felt the pressure of this diagnosis mounting as the Weimar Republic gradually withered away and his beloved German spirit turned more and more in the direction of murderous fascism. During the War, he started work on a novel that would, in effect, take over Kierkegaard’s device of exploring the relation between the aesthetic and the ethical by embodying them in two characters. In Doctor Faustus, published in 1947, the story of the genius composer Adrian Leverkühn is told by his childhood friend, the teacher Serenus Zeitblom. But Zeitblom is no pedantic moralist. Instead, as he recounts Leverkühn’s descent into madness from a possibly imagined deal with the devil, his transparent infatuation with his friend makes him stick loyally with him until the end. In other words, he doesn’t try to force upon Leverkühn the imperative to live a moral life, but instead simply laments the fact that his high artistic achievements—in the novel the composer invents Schönberg’s twelve-tone technique, much to the real-life Schönberg’s chagrin—were purchased at the price of personal corruption. As the devil himself puts it, when he appears to Leverkühn as the latter is reading Either/Or: “We want you cold, till scarcely the flames of production shall be hot enough for you to warm yourself in them. You shall flee into them from the coldness of your life.”
Leverkühn’s retreat from life culminates in one of the final moments of the book, when he confesses his sins to a shocked audience as he is about to premiere his last composition. The drama of this scene unfolds around the uncertain status of Leverkühn’s confession—indeed the whole book trades on the confusion about whether the appearance of the devil is real or simply an effect of Leverkühn’s syphilitic madness. Despite the fact that he delivers the confession in a bizarrely stilted, performative register (Mann’s original renders it in archaic German), most of the audience takes him seriously and walks out in disgust. And yet one last alternative interpretation is offered by an insistent ironist in the audience. Zeitblom recounts:
I flinched, for at this point a voice from the audience interrupted—that of the poet Daniel Zur Höhe in his clerical garb, who struck a blow with his foot and pronounced his hammering judgment, “It is beautiful. It has beauty. Indeed, indeed, one can say that!”
A few people shushed him, and I, too, turned disapprovingly toward the speaker, even if secretly I was grateful to him for his words. For although silly enough, they placed what we had heard under a soothing and accepted aspect, the aesthetic, which, however inappropriate, however annoying I found it, nevertheless provided even me some respite. …
Ah, but despite the comfort it offered, his tasteful interpretation was untenable; one did not believe it for long. For this had nothing to do with Zur Höhe’s bizarre poetical mischief about obedience, violence, blood, and the plundering of the world, but was offered in dead and pallid earnest, was confession and truth.
Zeitblom’s momentary gratefulness for and ultimate rejection of the judgment of the quasi-fascistic poet—whose name (“Zur Höhe”) evokes the haughtiness of the aesthetic aristocrat—reflects an ambiguity about true aestheticism that was implicit in Reflections but comes out more fully here. While the younger Mann had stressed the seriousness of the artist’s play, he now returns to ask what happens to the artist who plays entirely seriously, meaning completely. In the case of Adrian Leverkühn, the answer is clear: he is cast out by polite society and ends up collapsing at the piano, succumbing to his madness and leaving nothing behind but “the burned-out shell of his personality.”
Everything turns on how we understand this collapse. We might take Mann to fully endorse, in the guise of Zeitblom, the diagnosis of Kierkegaard’s ethical person: Leverkühn’s failure is a moral one, and his expulsion from the ethical community is a justified response. The ironist can continue along his corrupted path, but shouldn’t expect anyone to follow him there. If this is the lesson we take away from Doctor Faustus, we will side with today’s supposed moralists and politicizers. We might appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the ironist, but we will declare their work unfit for the public sphere. Artistic value must be reined in by moral and political standards.
This is manifestly not Mann’s conclusion. Leverkühn is never abandoned by his true friends, Zeitblom being one of them. The question then becomes how the friends of irony can preserve it against the pressures of morality or political expediency. And the answer is that Leverkühn has failed them. But not because his unapologetic artistry has put him at odds with morality. Rather, as Zeitblom’s comment about Zur Höhe stresses, he has failed because his art is no longer art at all, but something “dead and pallid earnest.” What has happened?
To Mann, the ironist was always serious in play. But does playing seriously mean playing unapologetically, letting oneself be nothing but a player? Or does it mean taking play seriously, as an activity with its own conditions of possibility, among which are both an appreciative audience and a certain pathos of distance? By opting for the first interpretation, Leverkühn effectively makes his own enterprise impossible. He deprives himself, first, of all but the most committed audience; in so doing, he abandons any claim to represent the “spirit” of a people—to speak to it, refine it and challenge it, to be its “leader,” as Mann likes to put it in Reflections. He reveals what, at heart, the one-sided ironist was all along, namely an ally of political repression. The dramatist Julius Bab had already seen this after the publication of Reflections. “Does [Mann] not see that this bourgeois romantic, this mutely musical Germany has shaped for itself (out of political disinterest!) a political rule which is so alien to its inner being, perhaps more alien than any French democracy is?!” Mann himself appreciated this dilemma, writing to Bab about Reflections: “It has friends who share its opinion and friends who absolutely don’t share it. I tend to consider the latter the more valuable.”
But the one-sided ironist has a much more dire problem: he is not, in fact, ironic at all. By absolutizing the mere idea of personality, he becomes nothing but the abstract shell of a person, into which various viewpoints flow without leaving a trace. In reality, he is chained to a single perspective on the world, one which cannot even contemplate the possibility of not being ironic. As Mann put it in a letter to Theodor Adorno, who served as his musical consultant on Doctor Faustus: “The proximity of death and greatness produces a certain objectivism … where the sovereignly subjective passes over into the mythic.” The mythic here is a force that operates behind the back of the artist. He no longer controls his play of perspectives. This play simply mirrors the logic of a reality with which he has lost touch entirely. At the culmination of the ironic, only the devil is right.
This is not just a moral problem, as Kierkegaard had stressed—an inability to act in the world, a blind complacency that amounts to a form of evil. Rather, the one-sided ironist undermines himself by not paying attention to what made his irony possible in the first place. The remedy, Mann seems to suggest, is a more self-aware irony, which for this reason is perhaps not quite as zealous about its own absolute value. “Irony as modesty, as skepticism turned backward,” he had called this already in the Reflections. Self-ironical irony, skepticism skeptical about its own possibility.
Doctor Faustus closes with an almost insufferable moral pathos: “When, out of this final hopelessness, will a miracle that goes beyond faith bear the light of hope? A lonely man folds his hands and says, ‘May God have mercy on your poor soul, my friend, my fatherland.’” But this is not Mann capitulating to aesthetic moralism. Rather, he is now more keenly aware of the paradox that one of the perspectives the ironist has to present is the one that is external to irony itself, and critical of its claim to encompass at once all possible perspectives on the world while at the same time being the only perspective really worth taking. Aware, in other words, that reality provides a check on art as much as on politics. Such an ironist, perhaps, would not meet the supposedly excessive moral fervor of today’s debate with equally fervent dismissal. Instead, irony would lessen the hold of principles of any kind on our attitude to the world while still recognizing the draw of such principles, allowing us to find freedom in the clear-eyed awareness of being pulled in multiple directions at once.
This serious irony is not a consistent attitude. But consistency is the concern of logic, and perhaps of politics. Since those are the tools of public debate, it is easy to allow oneself to fit the discussion of artistic freedom into the same mold. If, however, the ironic novel were able to bear the tension between the contrary values of the characters it presents, it also might be able to handle the tension between its own value of artistic integrity and the demands of the world in which it realizes that value. It can be hard to tell whether it succeeds in this. Is Doctor Faustus the pinnacle of self-irony or a rather pedantic and esoteric work of literature-as-musical-theory? To take a more recent example, is Houellebecq’s Submission a profound reflection on and of the lack of high aesthetic and moral values in modern society, or does it capitulate to this lack and lapse into deluded, xenophobic misanthropy? These are the kind of questions that Mann’s Reflections confronts us with today when we understand the book as merely the beginning of one of the most impressive lifelong explorations of the internal tensions of the aesthetic worldview in modern literature. And they are questions that should be answered aesthetically, not morally—not by picking sides in any of the either-ors just suggested, but by accepting that great works will always be both at the same time, masters of opposites and so of necessity imperfect when viewed from any one-sided perspective, whether moral or aesthetic. If this is right, the only real—and always provisional—answer to the problem of how to practice serious irony will be, quite simply, another novel.
Art credit: Felix Nussbaum, The Folly Square, oil on canvas, 97 x 195.5 cm, 1931. Collection of the Berlinische Galerie.