It’s 1939, Hitler is in full control, and Thomas Mann is wondering what has become of his culture, and in what way is he partly responsible for it. Just came to mind as I was contemplating the US election.
This essay was published in English in Esquire Magazine in 1939, when Mann was already in exile in the United States.
Were it not for the frightful sacrifices which continue to be offered up to the fatal psychology of this man; were it not for the ever-widening circle of desolation which he makes, it would be easier to admit that he presents an arresting phenomenon. Yet, hard as it is, we must admit it; nobody can help being preoccupied by the deplorable spectacle. For he has chosen — in default, as we know, of capacity to wield any other — to use politics as his tool; and politics always magnify and coarsen the effect they produce. So much the worse for us all; so much the worse for Europe today, lying helpless under his spell, where he is vouchsafed the role of the man of destiny and all-conquering hero, and where, thanks to a combination of fantastic chances — or mischances — everything is grist that comes to his mill, and he passes unopposed from one triumph to another..
Even to admit all this, even to recognize the bald and sorry facts, comes close to being a moral self-flagellation. One has to force oneself. And after that one begins to fear lest one be pusillanimous enough to fall short in the hatred which is the only right reaction from those to whom our civilization is anywise dear. I tell myself that I do not fall short. Most sincerely do I hope that this public misfortune may meet a disgraceful end — as disgraceful and as speedy as his well-known caution can give us ground to hope for. And yet, I feel that those are not my best hours in which I hate the miserable, if also portentous phenomenon. Happier and worthier are those other hours when my hatred is overcome by my need for freedom, for objective contemplation — in a word, for the irony which I have long since recognized as the native element of all creative art. Love and hatred are great emotions; yet it is strange how prone people are to underestimate, precisely as emotion, that attitude in which they both unite: I mean interest. And in underestimating it, they are underestimating at the same time its morality. For interest connotes a desire for self-discipline; it inclines to be humorous, ascetic; to acknowledge similarity, even identification with oneself; to feel a sense of solidarity. And all this I find morally superior to hatred..
The fellow is a catastrophe. But that is no reason why we should not find him interesting, as a character and an event. Consider the circumstances. Here is a man possessed of a bottomless resentment and a festering desire for revenge; a man ten times a failure, extremely lazy, incapable of steady work; a man who has spent long periods in institutions; a disappointed bohemian artist; a total good-for-nothing. And here is a people obsessed by powerful though far less justifiable feelings of defeat and inferiority, and unable to think of anything save how to retrieve its lost “honor.” And then he — who had learned nothing, and in his dreamy, obstinate arrogance never would learn anything; who had neither technical nor physical discipline, could not sit a horse, or drive a car, or fly a plane, or do aught that men do, even to begetting a child — he develops the one thing needful to establish a connection between him and the people: a gift of oratory. It is oratory unspeakably inferior in kind, but magnetic in its effect on the masses: a weapon of definitely histrionic, even hysterical power, which he thrusts into the nation’s wound and turns round. He rouses the populace with images of his own insulted grandeur, deafens it with promises, makes out of the people’s sufferings a vehicle for his own greatness, his ascent to fantastic heights, to unlimited power, to incredible compensations and overcompensations. He rises to such a pitch of glorification and awe-inspiring sanctity that anyone who in the past had wronged him, when he was unknown, despised, and rejected, becomes straightway a child of the evil one, meriting the most shameful and frightful death. He proceeds from the masses of Germany to the masses of Europe, and learns to apply in a larger setting the same technique of hysterical humbug and soul-paralyzing ideology which raised him to greatness in the smaller one. With masterly adroitness he exploits the weariness of the continent, its agony of fear, its dread of war. He knows how to stir up the peoples over the heads of their rulers and win large sections of opinion to himself. Fortune is his slave, all walls fall before him. The one-time melancholic ne’er-do-well, simply because he has learned — for aught he knows, out of patriotism — to be a political animal now bids fair to subjugate Europe, or, God knows, maybe the whole world. All that is unique. It is on a new scale; one simply cannot help granting the phenomenon the meed of a certain shuddering admiration.
There are traits of the legendary about it all — distorted, of course; but then, how much degeneration and distortion are there not in Europe today? The motif of the poor, woolgathering simpleton, who wins the princess and the kingdom; the ugly duckling who becomes a swan; the Sleeping Beauty surrounded by a rose-hedge instead of Brunnhilde’s circling flames, and smiling as her Siegfried hero awakes her with a kiss. “Deutschland erwache!” It is ghastly, but it all fits in, as well as many another folk tradition, mingled with debased and pathological elements. The whole thing is a distorted phase of Wagnerism, as has been said long ago; we know the not unfounded if rather illegitimate reverence which our political medicine-man feels for the musician-artist whom, after all, Gottfried Keller called a hair-dresser and a charlatan.
Ah, the artist! I spoke of moral self-flagellation. For must I not, however much it hurts, regard the man as an artist-phenomenon? Mortifyingly enough, it is all there: the difficulty, the laziness, the pathetic formlessness in youth, the round peg in the square hole, the “what ever do you want?” The lazy, vegetating existence in the depths of a moral and mental bohemia; the fundamental arrogance which thinks itself too good for any sensible and honorable activity, on the ground of its vague intuition that it is reserved for something else — as yet quite indefinite, but something which, if it could be named, would be greeted with roars of laughter. Then the bad conscience, the sense of guilt, the anger at everything, the revolutionary instinct, the unconscious storing-up of mines of compensatory wishes; the obstinate need of self-justification, self-proof, the urge to dominate and subdue, the dream of seeing the whole world abased in fear and love, admiration and remorse, at the feet of the once despised! The thoroughgoingness of the fulfillment must not lead us to wrong conclusions about the volume and depth of the latent dignity which suffered so much from the dishonors of its chrysalis state, or about the extraordinary violence of the tension, in an unconscious which was maturing creations so impressive and grandiose. The alfresco, the grand historic style, is not a question of personality. It has to do with the medium and sphere of activity of the political or demagogic method which it wields to sway whole populations and the destinies of great masses of people — with much accompanying noise and destructiveness. Its extrinsic scope proves nothing about the extraordinary character of the mental attributes or the actual greatness of this successful hysteric. But there is also present the insatiable craving for compensation, the urge to self-glorification, the restless dissatisfaction, the forgetfulness of past achievements, the swift abandonment of the prize once grasped, the emptiness and tedium, the sense of worthlessness so soon as there is nothing to do to take the world’s breath away; the sleepless compulsion to make one’s mark on something.
A brother — a rather unpleasant and mortifying brother. He makes me nervous, the relationship is painful to a degree. But I will not disclaim it. For I repeat: better, more productive, more honest, more constructive than hatred is recognition, acceptance, the readiness to make oneself one with what is deserving of our hate even though we run the risk, morally speaking, of forgetting how to say no. That does not worry me. Anyhow, the moral sphere, insofar as it derogates from the innocent spontaneity of life, is really not altogether the artist’s concern. It may be annoying, but after all it has its soothing side, to realize that despite all the psychoanalysis, all the progress we have made in learning how the human being’s mind works, there is still absolutely no limit to the extent the unconscious can go in effective projection of itself upon reality.
We see this truth illustrated by the state of Europe today; the reduction to the primitive to which she has consciously and deliberately submitted herself. Indeed, the conscious and willing surrender, the treachery to the spirit and to the upper levels at which it had arrived, are themselves the severest possible indictment of the prevailing primitivism. For this primitivism is shameless. It is a wanton self-glorification, in the face of the developed civilization of our age. It is shameless as a philosophy, however much condoned as a reaction against arid intellectualism. It is, in the Old Testament phrase, a folly and an abomination. Even the artist, despite his position as ironic partisan of life, must turn away in disgust from the spectacle of such an utter collapse and betrayal. Lately, on the films, I saw a ritual dance of the Bali islanders. It ended in a complete trance condition, with frightful twitchings of the bodies of the exhausted youths. Where is the difference between these practices and the procedure in the European mass meeting? There is none — or rather, there is one: the difference between the exotic and the repellent.
When I was still very young, I described in Fiorenza how the sway of beauty and culture was once broken by the religious and social fanaticism of a monk who heralded the “miracle of regained detachment.” In Death in Venice there is much of challenge to the psychologism of the age; much talk of a simplification and resolution of mind — though indeed in the story I made it come to a bad end. I did not lack contact with the tendencies and aspirations of the time, with ideas which twenty years later were to be the property of the man in the street. Who can wonder, then, that I paid no attention, when they degenerated into the political sphere and wreaked their violence on a plane where professors enamored of the primitive and literary lackeys of the anti-intellectual pose were the only ones who did not fear to tread? Such activities make one disgusted with one’s reverence for the sources of life. One feels compelled to hate them. But what is such hatred compared with that which the protagonist of the unconscious must feel for knowledge and mind? I have a private suspicion that the élan of the march on Vienna had a secret spring: it was directed at the venerable Freud, the real and actual enemy, the philosopher and revealer of the neuroses, the great disillusioner, the seer and sayer of the laws of genius. Our notion of genius has always been shrouded in a superstitious haze. But I question whether today the haze is thick enough to prevent our calling this man a genius. And why not do so, if it pleases him? The intellectual man is almost as much interested in painful truths as the fool is in those which flatter him. If genius is madness tempered with discretion (and that is a definition!) then the man is a genius. One feels freer to admit it because genius, while it is a category, is not a class. It has no reference to rank or station, manifesting itself in the most various ways, and even at its lowest revealing the marks of its kind. I will not decide whether history has ever produced a specimen of mental and moral baseness accompanied by the magnetism we call genius, to compare with this one to which we are the amazed witnesses. In any case I am against allowing the particular manifestation to give us a distaste for the whole category. The phenomenon of the great man has after all, been most often an aesthetic, not an ethical phenomenon. I admit that by overstepping our human limitations it has made humanity shudder before it; yet even so, and whatever the suffering involved, the shudder has nearly always been a thrill as well. We must make distinctions — they are very important. It annoys me when I hear people say today: “Napoleon was a boor too; we know that now.” It is really going too far to speak in one breath of the great soldier and the blackmailing pacifist, the fighter and the coward whose role would be played out on the first day of actual armed conflict. That earlier figure is stamped forever on men’s memories, a classic Mediterranean bronze. Hegel called him the “world-spirit on horseback.” And shall we compare that all-embracing brain, that immense capacity for toil, that embodiment of the revolution and tyrant harbinger of liberty, with the pitiable idler and incapable, the fifth-rank visionary, the stupid foe of social revolution, the sly sadist and plotter of revenge, the representative of “temperament”?
I spoke of the distortions prevalent in Europe today. And truly our times have succeeded in distorting much; for instance, nationalism, socialism, myth, philosophy, irrationalism, faith, youth, revolution — and what not besides? To cap it all, we have the distortion of genius. We must reconcile ourselves to our lot; for today it is our fate to encounter genius in this one particular phase of all the phases possible to it. An artist, a brother. But the [bond|solidarity], and the recognition of it, are an expression of art’s contempt for itself — they do not want to be taken quite seriously. I like to think, yes, I am certain, that a future is now on the way in which art uncontrolled by mind, art as black magic, the issue of brainlessly irresponsible instinct, will be as much condemned as, in humanly frail times like ours, it is reverenced. Art, certainly, is not all sweetness and light. But neither is it all a brew of darkness, not all a freak of the tellurian underworld, not simply “life.” More clearly and happily than ever will the artist of the future realize his mission as a white enchanter, as a winged, hermetic, moon-sib mediator between spirit and life. And mediation itself is spirit.