Literature and Social Reflection (or: Yet Another Essay on Thomas Mann)

Among the works of literature dealing with Fascism or authoritarianism, it is often the dystopias that take center stage; both classics like Brave New World, and newer works such as Ready Player One – not to mention the burgeoning genre of Young Adult Dystopian literature – have gripped the imagination in troubling times and been utilized as commentaries on the failures of contemporary society and the potential for authoritarianism and conformism. 1984 has maintained a particular popularity as the totalitarian touchstone, at least within the anglophone world. References to “Big Brother” and “Newspeak” are common, and growing fears about surveillance and fake news have provided fertile ground for analogies. Yet for all this dystopia, now that fears of fascism and authoritarian are reigniting across the globe, surprisingly little attention has been given to fin de siecle authors who engaged directly with the rise of such ideologies and attitudes before, during, and after the second world war, and who wrote directly about their historical time.

Italian and German works – contemporary and historical – are largely absent from English culture and education, with a few exceptions like Herman Hesse’s spiritual novels being common in high school syllabuses. Writers such as Ignazio Silone, Corrado Alvaro, Cesare Pavese, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Alba de Céspedes y Bertini, Heinrich Böll, Herman Broch, Arno Schmidt, Alfred Döblin, and Heinrich, Klauss, and Thomas Mann all enjoy, if not obscurity, than a respectful lack of cultural popularity in the United States. Certainly, many of these authors would be recognizable to many well-read individuals, and are recognized as giants of the modern era, but few of them are likely to feature in articles the same way George Orwell does.[i]

Some of the lack of attention may certainly be due to literary style: many of these modernist works were either extremely experimental (Arno Schmidt has been compared to James Joyce for his stream-of-consciousness experiments) or could read as old-fashioned and baroque (Thomas Mann has certainly been charged with this). One of the great virtues of Orwell’s work is the accessibility of its prose, and his pedagogical merits are well deserved, but to focus on broad claims about “totalitarianism,” technology, and authoritarian leaders risks overlooking cultural attitudes, historical conditions, and political particularities linked to fascism and other forms of revolutionary conservatism. This is not to say that realist literature alone is worthwhile, or that science fiction or dystopian literature isn’t worthwhile – many of the authors above experimented with non-realist styles, expressionism, historical fiction, and science fiction – but we also benefit greatly from finding literature that struggled with these political upheavals in their own time, and wrote about the particular attitudes and kinds of people that existed in that time. 

All of the authors listed above (and many more) deserve to be better read and discussed today, many of them deserve to have their works more widely translated. But here, I would like to focus on one individual writer – and one particular work by that author – who had personal experience with the rise of German Nazism, the German avant-garde, exile, and political involvement against Nazi Germany: Thomas Mann. Thomas Mann is one of the more accessible of the German authors of the war; all of his major novels have been translated into English, many of them have been adapted for TV and film, and he lived in exile in Los Angeles when WWII broke out. Mann’s style, though baroque, is well regarded for its realism and psychology, and while living in Los Angeles he would write one of his most politically astute and artistically captivating works, Doctor Faustus.

Faustus examines the emergence of Nazism through a biography of Adrian Leverkühn, a composer who – in a maybe real, maybe dream sequence – sells his capacity to love to a demonic figure in exchange for twenty-four years of musical genius. Mann grounds this account in the historical and cultural scenes of Germany through the 20th century, including the first World War and the Weimar Republic (the narrator writes in the midst of the Second World War, Leverkühn already having passed away in the early 30s). Some of the most intriguing scenes feature a conflict between two kinds of nationalism: one a “proper” national conservatism, the kind that favored Kaiser Wilhelm II before World War I, and the second a revolutionary conservatism, obsessed with the cultural “decadence” of modernism, and contemptuous of progress itself. In one scene Mann, in the voice of the narrator Zeitblom, juxtaposes both positions respectively with an encounter between Baron Riedesel and Dr. Chaim Bresacher: 

It was, however, very strange – partly embarassing, partly comic – when von Riedesel’s conservatism came up against another kind of conservatism, one for which it was not only a matter of “still” but also of “once again,” a post- and counterrevolutionary conservatism, an assault on bourgeois liberal values from the other side, not from before, but from after. By 1913 the Zeitgeist was supplying ample opportunity for such encounters, which the old, uncomplicated conservatism found both encouraging and perplexing…[ii]

There is no overwhelming brutality, no police state, no jackboots. The fascists (or proto-fascists) that occupy Mann’s novel do not talk of extermination, but instead talk about culture, art, and – in near existentialist terms – the nature of death, irony, and the unknowable. 

He [Bresacher] was a polyhistor, who could talk about anything and everything, a philosopher of culture, whose opinions, however, were directed against culture insofar as he affected to see all of history as nothing but a process of decline. The most contemptuous word from his mouth was ‘progress’ […] He could not get enough of describing the authentic rite, the cult of the real God of the volk (who was not at all abstractly universal, and thus not ‘omnipotent’ or ‘omnipresent,’ either), as a magical technique, a physical manipulation of dynamic powers, which was not without the risk of bodily harm and could easily end in accidents, catastrophic short circuits resulting from mistakes and blunders.[iii]

What Mann most effectively conveys is the way that fascism does not arise first and foremost with a “great leader,” but the leaders, the figureheads, emerge from attitudes, worldviews, and demands already in place in times of distress, change, and conflict. Furthermore, Mann identifies in fascism a real desire for commonality and community that subsumes everything including art, but the commonality and community is defined by volkish authenticity, and mythic presence: where this commonality had before appeared in World War One’s outdated national drive, it would be transformed into a new, revolutionary nationalism in World War Two. Leverkühn himself expresses his sentiments with language that, out of context, seduces with the abstract language of art, community, culture, and innocence. 

Art’s entire mood and outlook on life will change, believe me- meaning, it will become both more cheerful and more modest. It is inevitable, a stroke of good fortune. A great deal of melancholic ambition will fall away from art, and a new innocence, yes, a harmlessness will become its portion. Art will hold the future within it, will again see itself as the servant of a community that is embraced by far more than ‘education’ and that does not acquire culture, but perhaps is culture. We have difficulty imagining it, yet it will come to pass and be quite natural- art without suffering, psychologically healthy, that confides without solemnity, that trusts without sorrow, an art that is on a first-name basis with humanity…[iv]

Leverkühn’s compositions come to be defined by bitter irony, satire, and irrationality, but his nihilism, in turn, provides the groundwork for the drive towards volkish, “authentic,” myth. The contradictory, and unique, aspects of Fascist ideology comes forth from these elements: the fusion of glorified violence with authentic community, particularity of character with mythical universality, pure contingency and fate – Fascism in these terms cannot be simply reduced to conformity, surveillance, or the authoritarian leader. Jameson has pointed out how these sequences, wherein intellectual circles of German Moderns rage against the progress that allows them to exist, bears a satirical quality in its melodramatic gusto:

the comedy lies in the contrast between the mentalities of these highly specialized and cultured intellectuals and the political regression they call for: the sacrifice of the bourgeois individual to the renewed “Gemeinschaft,” and the denunciation of parliamentary democracy in favor of a new authoritarianism (of which Sorel and Mussolini are the heralds). This is thus the comedy of pre-fascism, and an exploration of the emergence of a Hitlerian climate, not among the poor, the unemployed and the veterans who made up the bulk of Nazi voters, but rather in the intelligentsia and the social elite.[v]

We could perhaps say, then, that there is a sense in which history may play out first as farce, and only then as tragedy: not as a repetition but as a prelude. It would not be wrong at all to say that we live in dangerous times, but the feeling of danger that saturates culture feels rather laughable, because it comes from above, rather than below. Outrage over the Twitter comments of politicians, the President railing about the quality of bathrooms, and the like become the obsessions of pundits, Saturday Night Live, and Late Show Comedy hosts and even these responses seem little more than an endless repetition of what was said in the first place. The continuing border crisis, wherein families are separated and imprisoned in horrible conditions, however, is incapable of acquiring the social urgency it demands. Debates over propriety actually elevate leaders and figureheads who are reacting to social relationships, the social relationships and problems remain masked.

This particularity is why Mann – himself no communist, though friends with members of the Marxist Theodore Adorno and other explicit Marxists – insisted on a substantial difference between the nature of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, whatever similarities could be seen from a distance, and whatever the scale of the USSR’s own crimes: “there is a certain moral difference between the ideas of Nazism and communism,” he said, “It is a tragedy that the Communist revolution in Russia became autocratic and did not free the Russian people.”[vi] While Mann was not a communist, his understanding of democracy penetrated beyond shallow frameworks to understand social goals and relationships as fundamental to understanding societies themselves. He had also seen firsthand how proto-fascism, and later fascism itself, emerged through the conditions of democratic societies themselves. Mann perceived that Liberalism produced what Ishay Landa has termed “Anti-Liberal Liberals” of both progressive and reactionary varieties, and had himself been in the position of Zeitblum: a reactionary bourgeoise who was ignorant of his own ideology until confronted with the results of World War One.[vii]

There is in Mann’s work, then, a valuable perspective of the ex-reactionary, the self-critical bourgeois, who explores openly the conflicting push-and-pull between structural forces and the individual. It is perhaps for this reason that Georg Lukacs, another communist intellectual, praised Mann’s work for its insight into social totalities. “The outbreak of the First War,” he writes in “In Search of Bourgeois Man,” “turned the situation of Mann and the German middle class inside out: those whose solipsistic lives had been protected by state power now had to take up arms and actively defend with their philosophy the power which protected them, i.e. reactionary Prussian-German imperialism.”[viii]

It is also important, however, not to make the mistake of assuming that contemporary reflection and examination of social relations must be sought-for only in work that stylistically matches Mann’s own. Bringing up Mann is not to suggest that insight into social relations can only be achieved through a realist form, as Lukacs – for a while – argued. Countering Orwell with Mann is not to suggest that the fault of 1984 is its genre of dystopian science fiction. It is telling that Mann’s Faustus incorporates the avant-garde, the modernist work wherein totality is expressed through the experimental and the fragmentary, into a more traditional – though deceivingly so – novelistic form. After all, while Leverkühn’s artistic gifts, disjointed and full of irony, are gained at the cost of his soul and love for mankind, it is not the style themselves that seem to bear the greatest, most foreboding evil, but the desire for an art “both more cheerful and more modest” to supplant and put to rest the creative work.

To grasp totality, then, is not merely to describe the facts of the society, but to examine the positions that exist within it. Totality is experienced as more than the whole of its parts and is also itself more than the sum of experience. It is in this sense that Jameson reframes Lukacs’s framework of totality and experience as a precursor to a form of standpoint-epistemology of group experience. the argument of standpoint theory now enables a principled relativism, in which the epistemological claims of the various groups can be inspected (and respected) for their ‘truth content’ (Adorno’s Wahrheitsgehalt) or their respective “moments of truth” (to use another convenient contemporary German expression). The presupposition is that, owing to its structural situation in the social order and to the specific forms of oppression and exploitation unique to that situation, each group lives the world in a phenomenologically specific way that allows it to see, or, better still, that makes it unavoidable for that group to see and to know, features of the world that remain obscure, invisible, or merely occasional and secondary for other groups.[ix]

What is striking in Mann is how bourgeois individuality reflects upon itself, begins to comprehend itself as a group, as an individuality that is itself the result of a class relationship and a social position. On the one hand, the bourgeois perspective is itself valuable for understanding totality, particularly the bourgeois perspective that attempts to perceive its own limitations; on the other hand, self-criticism and expression are revealed to be itself insufficient for overcoming the contradictions and problems of contemporary social processes.[x]

In the absence of significant reflection on the social relations from which the contemporary American bourgeois has developed, it seems worthwhile to examine work such as this. To examine literature such as this is to knowingly look at group experience of a kind comparable to the contemporary situation. It, therefore, allows insight into social relationships and ambiguities rather than foregone conclusions or pathos-induced calls for “resistance” or “empathy.” It urges us away from Leverkühn’s mistake of seeking art that is only “the servant of a community,” or worse, seeing art today only as the expression of a society that is already understood and self-evident.


[ii] Thomas Mann, trans. John E. Wood, Doctor Faustus (New York: Vintage, 1999), 294.

[iii] Ibid 295-298.

[iv] Ibid 339.

[v] Fredrick Jameson, “Allegory and History: On Rereading Doktor Faustus,The Modernist Papers (New York: Verso 2016), 118.


[vii] Ishay Landa, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), Chapter 3.

[viii] Georg Lukacs, “Thomas Mann,” New Left Review, I, no. 16, (July-Aug 1962), 78,

[ix] Fredric Jameson, “History and Class Consciousness as an Unfinished Project,” Valences of the Dialectic (New York: Verso, 2010), 215-216.

[x] Similar analysis may be found in the contributions of Cristopher Caudwell’s Illusions and Reality, and the work of Raymond Williams, particularly his essays “Literature and Sociology,” and “The Bloomsbury Fraction.”

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