May reading

Surely Thomas Mann still commands a readership. The newest translation of the trilogy Joseph and His Brothers in my uni library hasn’t been checked out since June 2005 — by me (I got it out again in fall 2016 and finished the damn thing). Don’t blame me: I’ve loved Mann since buying a Bantam paperback of Death in Venice my senior year of high school; I reread The Magic Mountain at the height of lockdown; and Tonio Kroger remains a crucial part of my queer canon. New York Review Books has gambled that the publication of Mann’s five-hundred-page tome Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man will attract the curious to a work neglected for decades (the last time someone checked out my library copy: 1983).

This is a gobsmacking, turgid, bat shit book, written after Mann’s brother Heinrich, himself a novelist of note (The Blue Angel) attacked him for endorsing the German cause for fighting the Great War. The kind of person requiring an adversary to, in the words of Mark Lilla in his tart introduction, develop his own identity, Mann poured his rage into a book comprised of lengthy quotations from Nietzsche and Oblomov and Dostoyevsky, spirited entanglements with the ghosts of Hegel and Napoleon, and jingoistic ramblings that will startle readers for whom the novelist personified the detached Great Man of Letters who later wrote The Magic Mountain and, horrified by the Third Reich, emigrated to America for life. The repressed homosexual with a slight crush on his oldest boy (also a homosexual), the lifelong burgher who studied his class with a vivisectionist’s detachment — he found a cause to stop the long decay of this same class.

And yet! “Politics is the opposite of aestheticism,” he writes with admirable concision. Sure. Thomas Mann would not have admired social media activism, it’s safe to say. The cliché about the ivory tower? For Mann a principle as self-evident as a Euclidean element. But when politicians stir the mass of men they distract him from the contemplation of art. Or something. Reading Reflections, I thought I had missed a subtlety until Mann, with his usual interest in the leitmotif, returned to the point with less subtlety: for him, the average person, the burgher, and the artist share preoccupations and needs. Not a word (that I can remember) about economic conditions which might make the study of Goethe more difficult. These days we might call Herr Mann privileged. He would see this as a compliment. To thumb through, say, Thomas Carlyle’s History of Frederick the Great is the provenance of the privileged.

Occasionally the book’s pedagogical tone quakes when Mann, as if he’s just put down the newspaper with the latest war news, sub-tweets himself:

Why do all the conservative elements of the world, in Madrid, Rome, Athens, Bucharest, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg secretly or openly sympathize with Germany while all liberalism hates us like the plague?

Oh, and about that war: German “military spirit,” he proclaims, does not come from “passion for gloire and is not the expression of a cocky, dashing, and bravado-like desire to bully and to attack…but of a moral character, a heroism in the name of ‘need,’ precisely that holy need that has marked this war from the first moment for the Germans.” If readers hear echoes in Donald Rumsfeld’s scoffing at the “old” Europe, FOX News’ 2003 campaign for “Freedom Fries,” and the Trumpian contempt for “elites” from a former president who courted them until 2015, their ears don’t need checking.

Why demagogues like William F. Buckley, Jr. and ideologues like Irving Kristol never to my knowledge cited Reflections as a crucial ur-text of conservatism may explain why it has floated unmoored from Mann’s oeuvre: for all its stumpy lucubrations, the text is a manifesto for aloneness. Ginning up outrage for the sake of electoral triumphs that protect minority rule would have turned Mann’s stomach too.

Yet when the gaze turns inward Mann produces thoughtful work. The irony for which he is renowned earns an explicatory passage. Art, he writes, deserves love because it betrays itself: “to turn against life it must turn against itself:

…it is this wonderful contradiction that it is, or at least can be, by its delightful imitation and critical-moral destruction of life, at the same time life’s comfort and judgment praise and glory, that it can have the effect of giving pleasure and awakening conscience to the same degree. To put it diplomatically, its mission lies in maintaining equally good relations with lie and with pure intellect, in being at the same time conservative and radical: it lies in its central and mediating position between intellect and life. Here is the source of its irony.

I can imagine the burgher’s smile, a shiver beneath the toothbrush umbrella, as this passage built toward this release. Politics, if I have read Mann correctly, vulgarize life, are unnecessary because art ipso facto is radical in aim already. What he calls “awakening the conscience of life” is a religious task, not a political one.

Years later he would complete those tasks in California, feted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a scion of the European expatriate set carving out a political record which Walter Laqueur deemed “honorable but not outstanding or exemplary.” He sold (and wrote) a lot of books, including Doctor Faustus, beloved by a couple friends but the only one of his novels I find as immobile as a battleship on land. The ultimate (and last of the) burghers suffered his own traumas. His daughter Erika married W.H. Auden, an occasion that must have provoked hilarity among literati (the truth: it made her a British citizen when the Germans revoked hers). Two of his sons killed themselves.


Tougher than I remembered, E.M. Forster’s posthumous Maurice treats its titular hero with some measure of objectivity; this burgher-in-training isn’t a proxy for the novelist. Nor is the book a mooncalf’s swoon over the swarthy body of a poorly educated farmhand named Alec Scudder.

Other reading:

Edward White – The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock
Anthony Trollope – The Warden
Liva Baker – The Justice from Beacon Hill: The Life and Times of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Susan Howe – My Emily Dickinson
* E.M. Forster – Maurice
Thomas Bernhardt – The Loser
Annie Zaleski – Rio
* F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
Octavia Butler – Fledgling
Graham Greene – The Honorary Consul
* Shakespeare – Macbeth
Natalia Ginzberg – The Heat of the City
Joel Silbey – Party over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848
Thomas Mann – Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man

* Denotes multiple readings

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