Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Humanism, degree zero.

In Vladislav Zubok’s Zhivago’s children, a study of the post-Stalinist intelligentsia, there is a fascinating passage about the effect of Stalin’s purges: “Other university level institutions of higher-learning were re-created in the 1930s as workshops for educated Soviet elites. Yet those elites – the Bolshevik vanguard… - perished in the dungeons of the secret police, in the camps of the gulag, and in mass graves on execution fields. That great bloodletting deprived the revolutionary and Soviet past of its heros and replaced them all with the towering effigy of the Great Leader, Stalin…Most of the survivors of the terror at universities and other cultural institutions were, paradoxically, the professors who did not share the communist idealism. They, who had instead been brought up in the nineteenth century tradition of liberalism and humanism, could not help passing onto their students their manners, habits, ethical standards and aesthetic standards – while keeping their political views to themselves.”

I find this utterly fascinating. I am not, in my old age, afflicted with cancred roots, Spanish moss, or a gauzy picture of humanism. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about Thomas Mann lately. In 1919, he writes his Reflections of a Non-political man, and – in effect – seems to align himself with the conservative revolution. He’d broken with his brother over the war, which he celebrated, and was receiving strokes from people like Spengler. In 1922, he gives his speech on Tolstoi and Goethe, and ends on an odd note in which Tolstoi is associated with the Asiatic, and Goethe is the spirit of Deutschland – which means “refinement, ennoblement and the humanization of the natural – not rational-radical de-naturalisation. It will not be Asiatic and wild, but European, which means gifted with a sense for division, order, measure, and bourgeois in the oldest, most worthy, medieval-german sense…” And, Mann mentions, as well, the “youth” – the youth that had, for instance, murdered Rosa Luxemberg, although he doesn’t mention that: ‘Western humanistic liberalism, politically speak, democracy, has some ground with us, but not all the ground. It is not the worst part of Germany’s youth who, before the decision, Rome or Moscow, opt for Moscow. At the same time these youth err not to say that not Rome, and not Moscow has the answer, but: Germany.”

However, as Mann scholars point out, from the time in which Mann’s essay is published in the Neue Rundschau to the time in which Mann expanded and redacted it as a much longer essay, the emphasis, the tone, the nuance – and Mann is a master of nuance, he lives for his nuances, his sentences are as full of feints as a good pitcher is full of curve balls and changes of pace, what he lives for is the insight that dazzles slowly, ever so slowly – had changed. Terence Reed in Thomas Mann, the uses of tradition, tracks some of the changes in the essay, and in particular this one:

“It is not the moment for Germany to conduct itself anti-humanistically, to take Tolstoi’s pedagogical Bolshevism as a model… On the contrary it is the moment to emphasize our great humane traditions emphatically and proudly, not only for their own sake, but also to visibly show that the claims of “latin civilization’ are unjustified.”

The story is that Mann finally understood the flow of the conservative revolution – understood that he had walked too far out, so to speak, into that ocean. And he could feel that the currents were steadily sucking away at all the aesthetic principles he held dear – as well as destroying the bourgeois – or really, buergerlich - attitude that he had defended so fiercely in the Reflections.

And the current goes out, and the current goes out. To think of the artists, the poets, the filmmakers who had answered the call in the twenties in the Soviet Union – who had, as it were, stepped on the throat of their own song, not that they knew it. Mann, long afterwards, in Hollywood, at the end of the war in which, as he was well aware, the country he was living in had bombed into rubbish the entire history of the buergerliche culture – presents a scene in Doctor Faustus in which Adrian Leverkuehn is uncharacteristically philosophical. He has just seen the performance of his Gesta, and in the after performance excitement, explaining why this work was not so… austere, intellectual, unintelligible to the masses, he says: “Funny, isn’t if, how for a long time music saw itself as a means of redemption, and all the while, like all art, it needed redemption, that is, it needed to be redeemed from a solemn isolation that was the fruit of culture’s emancipation, of the elevation of culture to an ersatz religion – needed to be redeemed from being left alone with a cultured elite, known as the ‘audience’, which will soon no longer exist, which already no longer exists, so that art will soon be all alone, alone to fade away and die, unless, that is, it should find a way to the volk, or to put it un-romantically, to human beings?”

A cry from the heart – except that Adrian’s biographer is not at all pleased by this surrender, this fear of art’s solitude, this retreat to the ‘volk’, to ‘human beings’. It is here that the curious dialectic of humanism as Mann saw it takes a turn – a much more radical turn than that of, say, Heidegger, who for all his anti-humanism had decided, with disastrous – or, in Heidegger’s case, farcical effect – to find a way to the volk.

And that moment – well, I savor that moment in Mann. That humanist contempt for the ‘human being’ as presented by a popularist anti-humanism – that ability to embrace, if necessary, any solitude. That icy, icy clasp, those fingers around my heart.


Utisz said...

Roger, a great post.

Roger Gathmann said...

Thanks! My reasoning may be a little convoluted, though. Hmm.