Thomas Mann on Artist vs. State


After completing “Reflection”, Mann returned to his “Death in Venice” companion novel, which evolved into his magnum opus, “The Magic Mountain”. It seems important that two of his greatest works were written just before and after “Reflection”, as both deal in many of the same ideas, allegorically behaving aesthetically, Mann’s signature effect. are expressed with ambivalence, through intense irony. As Lila notes in her introduction, the Mann novelist remained an artist until the very end, even as Mann adopted the role of civilisation’s spokesman. “I think that the most important aspects of the human soul—religion, philosophy, art, poetry, science—exist above, above and beyond the state, and often enough against it,” he writes in “Reflection” and that is a belief he never gave up.

In the light of history, many “reflections” can be easily dismissed, but the idea that we damage the most important elements of life when we use them for political purposes is a no-brainer for our moment. The real challenge becomes, as it is obsessive, with the political responsibility of the artist. Much about Mann’s book will be unclear to contemporary readers, but the literary figure of civilization will be immediately recognizable. He (or she) is a social conscience as novelist, author of earnest op-eds, signer of open letters, eager panelist at PEN events, tweeter of #resistance memes. While Heinrich Mann praises Emil Zola as a spokesman for democratic values, he is praising him not as an artist but as a litterateur of civilization and, more recently, as a Pulitzer Prize winner. takes to the pages of the New York Times To praise writers who “text voters, donate to active causes, get into bitter feuds on social media and write op-eds attacking the Trump administration,” he’s doing the same.

It is a strange sociological fact that these days the demand to be fair, responsible and progressive is mostly of domestic writers. Over the past two decades, American literary culture has eagerly embraced a procession of international novelists – WG Sebald, Roberto Bolao, Michel Houlebeck, Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard – whose works derive their power from their proximity to the clearly dangerous. Huh. ungrateful, monstrous; It seems that the exoticism of these writers exempts them from reading through the prism of American domestic politics. And yet our fascination with them suggests that some part of us still recognizes the need for art that at once said “yes” and “no”, art that expresses internal contradictions rather than programs of reform, Art that is clearly not in favor of health and life.

Mann was wrong to think that such art cannot exist in a democracy. In fact, liberal democracy may be the best defense of freedom to create such art. But it was not wrong to worry about democracy’s tendency to catalog art for its own sake, and it was not wrong to call upon the artists themselves to oppose it.



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