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Thomas Mann on the Artist Against the State

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After completing “Reflections”, Mann returned to his companion novel “Death in Venice”, which became his gargantuan masterpiece, “The Magic Mountain”. It is significant that his two greatest works were written just before and after “Reflections”, as both deal with many of the same ideas, treated aesthetically rather than rhetorically, expressed ambivalently, through the deep irony that was there. Mann’s signature effect. As Lilla notes in her introduction, Mann the novelist remained an artist until the end, even though Mann the public figure embraced the role of spokesperson for civilization. “I think the most important aspects of the human mind – religion, philosophy, art, poetry, science – exist beside, above and beyond the state, and quite often even against him, ”he writes in“ Reflections, ”and it’s a belief he never gave up.

In the light of history, much of the “Reflections” can be dismissed quite easily, but the idea that we do damage to the most important parts of life when we use them in an instrumental way, for political ends. , poses a real challenge in our time, obsessed because it is the political responsibility of the artist. Much of Mann’s book will be obscure to contemporary readers, but the literary man of civilization will be instantly recognizable. He (or she) is the novelist as a social conscience, writer of serious editorials, signatory of open letters, enthusiastic panelist at PEN events, tweeting #resistance memes. When Heinrich Mann praises Émile Zola as a spokesperson for democratic values, he praises him not as an artist but as a literary man of civilization, and when a recent winner of the award Pulitzer takes to the pages of the New York Times to praise writers who “text voters, donate to activist causes, engage in fierce social media fights, and write Op-Eds attacking the Trump administration, ”he does the same.

It is a strange sociological fact that the demand to be reasonable, responsible and progressive these days is mostly made by local writers. Over the past two decades, American literary culture has eagerly welcomed a procession of international novelists – WG Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard – whose works clearly derive much of their power from their proximity to the dangerous, the illiberal, the demonic; the strangeness of these writers seems to exempt them from being read through the prism of American domestic politics. And yet our fascination with them suggests that a part of us still recognizes the need for an art that says both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, an art that expresses internal contradictions rather than reform agendas, an 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 an art could not exist in a democracy. Indeed, liberal democracy at its best can be a great safeguard for the freedom to create such art. But he was not wrong to worry about the tendency of democracy to enlist art for its own purposes, and he was not wrong to call on artists themselves to resist it.


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