The most difficult thing to understand about Reflections is how Mann thought polemical statements like these could serve to defend the “nonpolitical” man. What, one wonders, does he mean by “politics”? We must read a third of the way into the book before finally being told this: “Politics is the opposite of aestheticism.” This is surely the most idiosyncratic definition anyone has ever thought to give the term. But it reveals that “politics” here is really an umbrella term for all the forces in modern life that Mann sees threatening what the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, in an inspired phrase, once called “the voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind.” This ur-distinction between aesthetics and politics stands behind countless oppositions that litter the book: art versus intellect, soul versus society, irony versus moralism, nation versus republic, the ideas of 1914 versus the ideas of 1789, and so on. What I, the “nonpolitical man,” oppose, Mann seems to be saying in this flurry of verbal gestures, is all that. (Every reactionary has an all that.)
Who, then, is the intellectual proponent of “politics”? Mann calls him the Zivilizationsliterat, an unlovely term even in German, which the English translator, Walter D. Morris, renders as “civilization’s literary man.” (A better translation might simply have been “Heinrich.”) Mann meant the term Literat to be derogatory, indicating a self-righteous, dilettantish scribbler who feels called upon to be the world’s moral tutor. This human type believes in justice and progress and democracy, but above all he believes that art has no end in itself, that it is a mere tool for advancing civilization and reaching humanitarian political ends. The Literat is the opposite, indeed the enemy, of the serious artist; he is an evangelical who would “commit intellect and art to a democratic doctrine of salvation.” And as this type becomes emboldened, the cultural space in which serious artists operate becomes stifling and hostile. One passage could have been written today:
The outlawing and expulsion of those who disagree is completely consonant with his concept of freedom…. Since he believes he possesses the truth, “the blind-ing-ly clear truth,” his love of truth is in a bad way…. He imagines himself justified, yes, morally bound, to relegate to the deepest pit every way of thinking that cannot and does not want to recognize what glitters so absolutely for him to be the light and the truth. There is only a “yes” or a “no,” sheep and goats, one must “come forward.” Tolerance and delay would be a crime. He believes he has to save his soul by not spending one more hour of even apparent companionship with obstinate fools who do not see what he sees.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor