May 20, 2021

Thomas Mann’s controversial “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man” (1918) was written more than a century ago—at a time when the arts, as they are now, were threatened by political constraints—and rereading it today highlights its persistent topicality regarding the cultural and political debates in Europe and the United States of today.

Thomas Mann’s mammoth Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man has just been reissued in the United States. Despite its nationalistic, warlike character, it has not been given a trigger warning—that is, a hint that sensitive readers might be emotionally disturbed. Such notices are becoming more and more common in new editions of older books.

“Thomas Mann,” by Ulrich Schwarz, 1992

The foreword, contributed by historian of ideas Mark Lilla, might be the most noteworthy part. Lilla has not previously appeared as a Mann expert, but he is a sharp critic of leftist identity politics, whose claim to absoluteness and resistance to compromise he regards as a rift in liberal-democratic consensus-finding, and thus a threat to democracy. This point of view rubs off on his characterization of Mann’s book, which was written during World War I yet is highly topical today with a view to the current debate regarding politics and culture. Lilla’s reasoning: Mann’s text comes from a time when the arts, as they are today, were threatened by political constraints. Mann reacted to this less politically and more as an artist and aesthete. The yardstick of his work was art, which he saw as the most significant possible counterpoint to politics.

“Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen,” First German edition Berlin: S. Fischer 1918

The dispute between art and politics, Lilla continues, was what led to Mann’s position in 1914 against leftist democratic-pacifists who believed they occupied a higher political morality, as embodied prototypically by the author’s brother, Heinrich Mann. Thomas’s anger in Reflections was directed at them and perhaps specifically at his brother: he saw them as zealous “Jacobins,” whom he accused of having betrayed art with their political dogmatism and democratic zeal for proselytizing. At this point, a suspicion creeps in that Lilla’s introduction is not only aimed at Thomas Mann and his book. Lilla stresses the fact that Mann never fundamentally renounced Reflections. He did, after 1918, distance himself from his völkisch-nationalistic furor of the war years, but he never retracted the aesthetics developed in the book and his critique of the overly political artist.

Lilla locates the reason for this in the connection between objectivity and artistic freedom, which is elementary to Mann’s thinking and work. This was clearly laid out in Reflections and was developed to its full effect in his subsequent novel, The Magic Mountain. This is one of the reasons why Reflections is a groundbreaking work; traces of it can also be found in the four-part book Joseph and his Brothers (1926–43) and in Doctor Faustus (1943).

“Der Zauberberg,” First German edition Berlin: S. Fischer 1923

Mann’s concept of objectivity does not correspond to scientific standards but is rather a literary construct in which objectivity results from the exposure to multiple perspectives. Lilla mentions the contrast between the enlightened, individualistic democrat Settembrini and the conservative, revolutionary Jesuit Naphta in Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) as an example. Behind this is the intellectual and aesthetic claim to present various political perspectives to outline the wide range of political thoughts of the time and expose them to the public. Allowing for the validity of many modes of thinking and their aesthetic representation was the true meaning of art for Mann—and ultimately also the source of his book’s radicalism. And it is precisely here that the contrast to the “civilization literary,” whom Mann accused of not looking for that depth, but instead deliberately limiting themselves to a two-dimensional representation of their own political convictions, manifests itself.

Even when Mann had long been politically on the side of democracy, especially during his time in exile in the United States, there was never a reason to revise the Reflections. If Mann was never one thing in his life, it was a democratic artist. As evident as this judgment is, Lilla mentions it only to a limited extent. During the Nazi era, Mann became the world’s most potent German voice against Nazi barbarism. And after World War II, he saw aesthetic radicalism à la Friedrich Nietzsche as one of the culprits of the Nazi dictatorship and recommended in Doctor Faustus a return to a humanistic classicism. He thus clearly abandoned the political aberration of Reflections even if he did not openly disavow it.

Heinrich and Thomas Mann (center) with their sisters Carla and Julia, circa 1885

Lilla’s text is otherwise an intellectual balancing act. By casting Reflections as evidence of artistic freedom, he sends Mann to the “front” of current cultural debates a good six and a half decades after his death. Through such transparent instrumentalization, he makes himself vulnerable to Mann and his Reflections and thereby weakens his own criticism of today’s often dogmatic identity politics, which in asserting its worldview freely indulges in restrictions on artistic freedom.

But Mann does not need such a defense anyway.

Adrian Weissenfeld is a practicing lawyer in Frankfurt am Main. He studied labor law, German literature, and critical theory at Goethe University Frankfurt. He worked as a journalist for the Frankfurter Rundschau for over thirty years (1960–1993). Currently, he is preparing a dual biography of the life and work of Monica and Erica Mann.

Cover image: Max Oppenheimer, Portrait of Thomas Mann, 1926

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