Thomas Mann: Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man; Frederick Ungar; New York.

The true artist living in a time dominated by politics finds himself traversing a path that is both arduous and dangerous. He begins with a search that is committed to life rather than to just the intellect; that search is replete with ambiguity and doubt and is hostile to dogmatism and the treatment of mere opinion as truth. He must be wary of the ensuing danger that the ambiguity will become so confusing and the doubt so alienating that he may want to leap into the abyss of nothingness. Although some do become libertines and a rare few seem to be able to lean endlessly into the abyss while successfully hanging onto the search, many an artist needs and discovers some higher meaning that liberates from potential despair. Even then he must never become content with that liberation, for the danger always remains that he will turn from the abyss of ambiguity and doubt, forget the search that once seemed so necessary, and adopt a new form of dogmatism. Instead, the artist must learn to totter on the edge, believing while doubting, radicalizing while conserving, living while intellectualizing.


Thomas Mann is a teacher and philosopher, but primarily an artist, in his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. In these reflections, penned at the time of World War I, Mann takes us on a prolonged journey that examines nuance after nuance, considers argument and counter-argument, and teaches us much about the relationship between the artist and the world in which he resides. He persuasively maintains that art must reject politics and he affirms the values of the artist. He is most valuable, however, because he shows by example that the artist never can rest comfortably with either total rejection or total affirmation: the artist is caught in a web of contradictory pulls that place him at odds with the society in which he lives and from which — at a higher level — he draws comfort and meaning.

Politics is the artist’s most profound enemy. Perhaps this is not true of the politics practiced in the Greek polis, but it certainly applies to the politics of both Mann’s time and 20th-century America, both of which have roots in the Enlightenment view of the world. Enlightenment politics offends the artist because it divides human life into the empirical and the metaphysical, is concerned with social order and not the personal soul, and advocates democracy and equality rather than rank and excellence. Having made that division, it then relies on the intellect to advance empirical propositions about society, which it claims to be truth. To be sure, others have done this before — to wit, the Sophists and the Gnostics (and we have our own dogmatists in America today  the egalitarians of the left and the modern gnostics of the right) — but the real villain, according to Mann, is the French Revolution and its discovered truth of our age: democracy is the way to human happiness and a virtuous society. These Sophists, Gnostics, Jacobins, Egalitarians are all philodoxers — lovers of opinion — who have stumbled across an appealing opinion, raised it to the level of truth, and foisted it upon the rest of mankind, artists included.

The artist must shout no, regardless of the opinion’s particular content. The artist, a gypsy who wanders from place to place and idea to idea, never commits any place or idea to memory, but continually searches for life in all of its fullness. Whereas the politician expounds myriad goals (happiness, virtue, a just society, a quality education for every individual, a satisfying job for each worker), the artist advances no goals and his art never serves as means to some other end. Other than life itself, the artist begins with nothing and is committed to nothing. Pure art is pure process and its meaning rests both in the act of creation and in the act of reception, and even then only when the creator (the artist) and the receiver (the reader, listener, viewer) come to it with no anticipation, no expectation. It is in that process of creating or receiving that one begins to know life; if the intellect and its dogmatic theories are permitted to interfere, all may be lost. Recall that scene in Amma Karenina where Levin cuts the hay perfectly when he works naturally and in tune with life; the moment his intellect begins to observe the naturalness of his cutting he cuts erratically. Likewise, art is life in the moment of creation and must resist the pull of the intellect if it is to maintain its grasp of life.

To reach and then hold that level of purity in art is nearly impossible. It would mean that each artistic creation could be observed only once, for on the second and succeeding times one brings images, thoughts, and expectations to the work, and after many times one begins employing the intellect to analyze and critique the work. Thus, it is more useful to think of degrees of artistic purity. Mann suggests, for example, that music is the most pure of arts; there are no words to convey meaning and by reaching the innermost emotions it can stir great feelings. Poetry, especially when it focuses primarily on words, sounds, and form, rather than meaning, is considerably more pure than literature. Indeed, literature with its democratizing tendency, frequently is an ally of politics, and Mann readily confesses that he, too, has contributed to the advance of progress — and the subsequent destruction of music — through his activities as a literary writer. Any yet, his literature is significantly more artistic than that of the social novel and the European writers he so despised. Nor must one let the subject matter of a writing confuse in evaluating its artistic nature: the socialist realism of Soviet novels reveals little of life, even when it never mentions politics, whereas a seemingly social-political novel like Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men is artistic because it reveals life rather than explaining or justifying it according to some dogma.

That there is not much pure art in contemporary America should not be surprising. Mann’s imagery applies to our time as well: it is as if the artist has mounted a horse moving in a particular direction and has the option of getting off or riding it to the end. It is a fact that politics has won the day, and pure art — art for art’s sake — no longer has an audience. If Mann expected his art to stir feelings and raise the spirit of his countrymen, he had no choice but to resort to literature. And that is why the American Flannery O’Connor created such grotesque characters and outrageous incidents in her stories: in these political times the artist may have no choice but to shock the reader in order to get attention. Practically speaking, if the artist is dedicated to striking a responsive chord in the hearts of fellow human beings, the artist no longer can afford absolute purity.

Furthermore, the artist dose not have to reject the possibility of knowing simply because he rejects the dogmatic opinions of politicians. The artist searches and creates because life has meaning, and it is not surprising that the artist therefore discovers and pronounces competing values. Much of Mann’s book is an explication of and advocacy for the higher values that he sees politics and democracy destroying. His fervent praise of Germany and his abject hostility toward France might appear as jingoism, but that is an unfair reading. Germany and France are merely representatives of two world views that Mann believed had been clashing for some time.

He sees France as the embodiment of society radicalized in the name of progress. The result is a leveling that treats everyone the same and a democracy that means nothing more than citizen participation in the state. France may be the epitome of civilization, but civilization, hand-in-hand with politics, dissolves the state and eventually the individual. Germany is praised as the last resistance to that movement. The German fatherland transcends the mere political state, and its Volk cannot be found anywhere else in Europe. It is culture, not civilization, that provides both form and order and binds the German people. Indeed, Mann even praises the war in Europe because it reminded the German people of their music, their humanity, their spirit — their culture — and of the need to protest the radicalizing democratization that had spread throughout Europe.

One might ask why the artist’s view should be regarded as more valuable than the politician’s. The answer and ultimately the key to why art and politics are in conflict, is that the artist is not interested in entering the fray of competing opinions, but rather seeks to transcend mere opinion with an inquiry that might lead to the realm of truth. That is, politics and art differ in kind. The political focuses on and ends with society; art begins where politics ends and addresses the essential dimension of our personal lives. Thus, while politicians strive to satisfy material wants and needs, the artist speaks to our spirituality; while politicians praise our equality at the ballot box, the artist glorifies our human equality; while politicians criticize the policies of previous administrations, the artist examines the way we live on a daily basis. Indeed, the real reason that art is conservative is that it attempts to conserve those values that constant preoccupation with politics has caused us to forget.

This is why Mann is correct in regarding Dostoevski as a greater writer than Tolstoy. Dostoevski knew politics better than most writers; his novels are reactions to the politics of his Russia. Yet, he does not write about politics, but instead sparks the religious element in our lives. Tolstoy, whose later works are superficially more religious and pious, is in fact much more the student and critic of society’s values. It is not surprising that the Russian dissidents read Dostoevski while in the camps, and it is not surprising that their reading often leads to conversions. Tolstoy may write of salvation, but his works are imbued with society; Dostoevski may seem to write of society, but his works are imbued with salvation.

Today we need artists like Dostoevski. Prior to the ill-fated division of life into two distinct spheres, art may not have served any unique function. The soulcraft was the responsibility of politics and one could speak about politics and religion in the same breath. Who is concerned with the soul now? And who talks of spirituality without a tinge of embarrassment? Certainly not the politicians who are trying to save the world. And although the scientists can tell us much about the universe, they can say little about the humans who inhabit the universe. If one is fortunate, an occasional sermon from the pulpit will help, and if one is diligent, an occasional philosopher or theologian will shed insight. For most of us, however, it is the artistic vision that is best able to transcend the mundane, political world and give us a glimpse of life in its fullest.

To be sure, the artist must never let himself become a political instrument, nor can he turn his back on the ambiguity and doubt that instigated his quest. When the artist begins to think of himself as the purveyor of values, he is likely to become self-righteous, morally secure, and just another dogmatist competing for attention in a political world. At the same time, in a world and an age where politics is pervasive, we no longer can afford art for art’s sake, but must appeal to our artists to conserve those higher values and to make them accessible to all of us. It may be that what we want and need in these times are prophets who do not think of themselves as prophets, seekers of truth who are never satisfied with their answers.   cc