Bringing It All Back Home

Thomas Mann House
Published in
8 min readFeb 24, 2020

Thomas Mann, Democracy, and America

By Kai Sina

You could just leave it at that: Thomas Mann did the right thing at the right time. In the era of National Socialist barbarism, he was a strong and resolute advocate for democracy and humanity. Doesn’t the historical magnitude of his engagement necessarily make the question of his democratic ideals and ideas seem rather petty? I do not think so, and that is for two reasons: On the one hand, since the fortunate acquisition of his former home in Pacific Palisades by the Federal Republic of Germany, Mann has been perceived more strongly as a political actor than a few years ago; for some contemporary commentators like David Brooks, Francis Fukuyama, or Ananya Roy, he even serves as a model for our times and the current struggle for democracy. Yet, the question of what he stood up for in his speeches and lectures, what he meant by using the word ‘democracy,’ is rarely addressed in detail; the results of scholarly research are not reflected in public discourse, or only occasionally. And on the other hand, I believe that Mann’s democratic beliefs are at least in part of relevance for our present time. We shouldn’t therefore shy away from taking on a critical gaze.

Containing Multitudes

Thomas Mann and democracy, Thomas Mann as a democrat — scholars generally view this constellation skeptically. His statements about democracy are conceptually ‘freehand’ and theoretically ‘limited,’ they say. And it is true: Anyone who measures Mannʼs democratic convictions against the political criteria of our time will quickly encounter deficits. But it is doubtful whether such standards of comparison are appropriate at all, since our notions of plurality and diversity were far from obligatory in Mann’s days. But even more importantly, Mannʼs concept of democracy is in its fundamentals not just political. What matters to him are the conditions of modern human existence in general.

In 1922, Thomas Mann held his still controversial speech on The German Republic in which he made his first public commitment to democracy. The speech he gave in Berlin is as sober as it is emphatic, a plea for the Weimar Republic, whose central impulse, among others, is the American national poet Walt Whitman. But what exactly interested Mann in the poet of Leaves of Grass? Better than in the speech itself, this can be deduced from his working library, specifically from his Whitman edition, which is almost littered with annotations and marginal notes. Their consideration shows one thing very clearly: Mannʼs interest in reading was directed primarily towards the idea of a plural subject that finds in democracy a correspondent form of society.

In the biographical introduction by the translator and editor Hans Reisiger, which precedes the first volume of the edition, Whitman is understood to be a spiritual embodiment of the great American social promise ‘E pluribus unum.’ A line drawn with a lead pencil at the edge of the text shows a special interest in this aspect (Fig. 1). In Whitman, according to Reisiger, “all sorts of essences” fit seamlessly into “one,” in all their “elemental richness” and despite their “contrariness” and “ambiguity.” The tolerance towards contradictions that Reisiger attributes to Whitman finds poetic expression in his work. “Do I contradict myself,” this is the fundamental question of the Song of Myself, and the singer answers it with a serene agreement: “Very well then …. I contradict myself.”

Fig. 1: Thomas Mann’s edition of: Walt Whitmans Werk, ausgewählt, übertragen und eingeleitet von Hans Reisiger. Berlin: S. Fischer, 1922, Vol. 1, p. XCVIII. Published with kind permission of S. Fischer.

The tremendous provocation, which such an elastic concept of subjectivity had to represent for Thomas Mann, becomes recognizable in retrospect of his literary oeuvre. Not only the characters of his earlier prose work — we need only think of Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, but also of the opponents of The Magic Mountain, Naphta and Settembrini — are not able to endure one thing, and that is contradictions in the world and in themselves. Aschenbach literally dies of the inner incompatibility of artistry and bourgeoisie, while the philosophical and political disputations between Naphtha and Settembrini increasingly take on militant traits: Their striving for intellectual purity and their inability to form compromises pre-figure the primal catastrophe of the 20th century — as “a confused noise of battle.”

However, in regards to questions about the plural subject, Thomas Mannʼs reading of Whitman is not superfluous; on the contrary, he also studies what a social form appropriate to this understanding of the subject should look like. A further marginal note sheds light on this question, this time not in Reisiger’s introduction, but in his translation of Whitman’s Democratic Vistas: For Whitman, the social “aggregate” only has “character” if it permits “perfect individualism” — an idea that Mann irritatingly associates with the romantic poet Novalis, as a note in the margin shows (Fig. 2). What holds between people, though, should also hold for the United States: In reference to Abraham Lincoln, Whitman speaks of the “identity of the Union,” which is inconceivable without “best vitality and freedom” of the individual states.

Fig. 2: Thomas Mann’s edition of: Walt Whitmans Werk, ausgewählt, übertragen und eingeleitet von Hans Reisiger. Berlin: S. Fischer, 1922, Vol. 1, p. 34. Published with kind permission of S. Fischer.

The reading of Whitman undoubtedly represents an intellectual caesura for Mann. Indeed, before the First World War, the Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, and a few other writings intoxicated by nationalism and militarism, he had already approached an affirmation of hybridity and complexity in literary, intellectual, and political terms, above all in his often underestimated novel Royal Highness, which was published in 1909. However, he only finds an emphatic confirmation and conceptual definition of this in and through Whitman.

Tolerating Contradictions

Let’s jump from the twenties to the thirties and forties. The fact that Thomas Mann was a great admirer of the 32nd President of the United States, that he set all his political hopes in Roosevelt as Hitler’s opponent, that with the fourth part of his Joseph novel he created a literary monument to him and, despite all this, overlooked FDR’s negative sides, both personal and political — the essential has already been said about all this. Rarely, however, have we asked about the ostentatious linguistic details and semantic nuances found in Mann’s remarks about ‘his’ president.

His touching obituary of Roosevelt culminates in the evocation of a man who had been “an appearance of perfect aesthetic charm.” What does that mean? Mann seems to write about the recently deceased as if he were a character in literature. This becomes particularly evident in a passage in which Mann speaks of the president’s physical ailments, his suffering: “Our hearts would have beaten for him with less veneration, if the heroic, the defiance of fate, the surmounting of weakness, that which we call courage, had not been a part of his makeup. The disease that had not been able to kill him had nevertheless lamed him. His physical impediment brought a pathetic, a touching element into the splendor of his life. He could not walk, but he walked. He could not stand, but he stood — he stood in four political campaigns and used the golden voice with which nature had endowed him to plead for the privileges of completing his work.”

In his groundbreaking book on Thomas Mann’s American years, Hans R. Vaget has shown how strongly this image of Roosevelt is oriented around the characters in his literary work: As was the case of Gustav von Aschenbach, it applied to the American president, to quote from Death in Venice, “that almost everything great that exists exists as a ‘despite,’ that is, comes into being despite grief and agony, poverty, abandonment, physical weakness, vice, passion, and a thousand hindrances.” This stirring interpretation, however, should not lose sight of one thing: Aschenbach fails through the contradictions in his life, more than that, they ruin him in an undignified way. On the contrary, Roosevelt’s life and work are nothing less than a triumph for Mann: he tolerates, endures, even conquers the contradictions of his existence. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then …. I contradict myself” — applied to Mannʼs image of Roosevelt, this phrase sounds much less calm, indeed, it seems more like a credo of perseverance. And yet the coincidence is unmistakable: Roosevelt embodies for Mann a plural subject in which “the different beings naturally integrate into each other as one” (to take up Reisigerʼs biographical characterization of Whitman).

Against this backdrop, Mann’s dazzling conception of democracy can be understood more properly. In his 1944 lecture The War and the Future, Mann insists that democracy should not be understood as a “demand from below,” but as “good will, generosity and love coming from the top down.” Behind this stands a conception of human greatness, which for him is connected with no one else but the American president. As a plural subject, he is virtually predestined to be the leader of democracy. The experience of being himself a profoundly contradictory being and of having to live with these contradictions makes him capable of “love” in the Christian sense, understood as a compassion from which “good will” and “generosity” grow towards all people. For this reason, the aspect of equality, the very foundation of democracy, undergoes a clear devaluation: as a “demand from below.”

With this, Mann draws consequences from his American-influenced, Whitman-inspired concept of democracy that can hardly be called democratic — at least not in the sense of the American constitution. With his attempt to link democracy to the special character aptitude of individual personalities, Mann is still bound to the 19th century and the phantasm of the ‘great man’ as a leader of world history. It must, however, be considered that ‘greatness’ is no longer simply associated with strength and assertiveness, but with inner plurality, physical fragility, and compassion, which are at the heart of Mann’s democratic beliefs. In other words, Mann fundamentally reinterprets the concept of the ‘great man’ — a necessity that resulted not least from the fact that Hitler had completely perverted this tradition.

Internalizing Democracy

Despite all justified criticism in detail, Thomas Mann’s democratic thoughts continue to be stimulating for our time. That democracy is more and must be more than a political category in a narrow sense, indeed that it begins with the subject’s relationship to itself and the world, is rarely considered in the current debate. If we ignore his fixation on the ‘great man’ for just a moment, we can see that Mann is approaching a concept of democracy that John Dewey developed in his famous book on Democracy and Education a few decades before him. For Dewey, too, democracy is ultimately “more than a form of government,” namely “a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” For this reason, the individual must be able to process “more numerous and more varied points of contact” and integrate “a greater diversity of stimuli” into itself. This fundamental idea is not far from Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” and therefore not far from Mannʼs idea of a plural subject either. It leads directly into the global conflicts of our time.

This text is the abridged version of a lecture given by Kai Sina at UCLA on December 4, 2019.

Translation by Roman A. Seebeck.

Kai Sina is a literary scholar at the University of Göttingen. In his research, he focuses on the history of transatlantic literature. In 2017, he published an essay on Susan Sontag and Thomas Mann (Göttingen: Wallstein). It was followed this year by a book on “Collective Poetry.” Its subject is the relationship between modern literature and the open society. It includes studies on Goethe, Emerson, Whitman, and Mann (Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter).



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