Saturday, April 25, 2009

Taking things seriously

In the introduction to the Observations of a Non-Political Man, Thomas Mann makes a very Thomas Mann-ish apology for the entire text, which, he keeps protesting, was a sort of neurotic crucifixion, a rubbing against his own talents, a symptom of his middle aged feeling of being out of sorts with his age. He imagines a reader asking of this huge defense of Germany, what is all this to you? - meaning, why should we go to a novelist for a defense of Germany in 1918? Or even, why should a novelist waste 600 closely printed pages of politically charged prose to tell us that he doesn’t care for politics? That he is, even, constitutionally incapable of caring about politics?

“All pain about things is self pain, and only the man who takes himself seriously pains himself. You will excuse all the childishness and pedantry of these pages when you have excused the fact that I take myself seriously – a fact that becomes obvious as soon as I talk about myself. And, of course, it is a quality that one intuits as the first foundation of all pedantry and may find laughable. “Heavens, how seriously he takes himself” – to this whisper my book obviously gives occasion in its every nook and cranny. I can’t reply in any way except with the fact that, without taking myself seriously, I could never have lived nor could live now; as the consciousness that all that seems good and noble to me, the mind, art, morality, stems from humans taking themselves seriously; except for the clear insight, that everything that I’ve done or influenced, up to the charm and value of the smallest components of it, every line and trope of my life’s work up to now – so much and so little as this may mean – is uniquely reducible to the fact that I take myself seriously.” XVII

These are sentences in the high Thomas Mann style, in that he seems, even as he is jotting them down, to be turning them over, like pebbles he has found out on a walk, so that the pathos of taking himself seriously becomes both funnier and more serious the more he presses the point until the end, when it turns out that what is taken most seriously is the fact of taking seriously – and how can one take that seriously as a content, as the reward for the attitude? It is like digging up a treasure chest and finding another treasure chest inside it. This cry that contains its counter-cry, this way of ducking into a fight, it is very very Mann – and if you take the taking seriously too seriously, you will end up, like Nabakov, not understanding a bit of it. Or rather rejecting all of it. I read Nabakov before I read Mann, and was thus left with a prejudice against the latter. Nabakov’s reflexive distaste for a story that wears its thoughts on its surface – when, for him, the whole of art depends on submerging and hiding the conceptual in the work, as a good magician hides his strings and false bottoms – comes out when he writes about Mann and Dostoevsky. But once you reject the idea that magicians are only to be hired to entertain rich children at birthday parties, once you take the magic in a more serious sense – that sense given it by Gogol when he recognized that the devil is incarnated in the banal – then you are ready to read Mann, and take him seriously. And at the same time see how funny taking things seriously is. The ludicrous, sitcom fate, the slapstick of circumstance, dogs all men.


Roure Vilòbit said...

Of course, Nabòkov "knew" about the "ludicrous seriousness of being" - read again the amazing first paragraph of "speak, memory".

"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness (...) a young chronophobiac experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth (...) what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin - even that it was empty - as if - in the reverse course of events - his very bones had desintegrated..."

"In order to enjoy life - we should not enjoy it too much," he says, seriously funny, funnier than Gògol, because he knows that what makes tragedy ultimately funny is the "narcotic" (as Graham Greene had it talking about fear), the narcotic (dreamlike) (exhilarating) excess of "cruelty," coming not as the "gift" of any stupid notion such as a "devil" incarnate, but from the inherent "absurdity" of life.

Roger Gathmann said...

Mr. Arquimbau, I too love speak memory - but funnier than Gogol?

I beg to differ. Even if Nabokov's book on Gogol is, well, pretty funny.