After completing “Reflections,” Mann returned to his “Death in Venice” companion novella, which grew into his gargantuan masterpiece, “The Magic Mountain.” It feels significant that his two greatest works were written immediately before and after “Reflections,” because both deal in many of the same ideas, treated aesthetically rather than rhetorically, expressed with ambivalence, through the profound irony that was Mann’s signature effect. As Lilla notes in his introduction, Mann the novelist remained an artist to the end, even as Mann the public figure embraced the role of spokesman for civilization. “I think that the most important aspects of the human spirit — religion, philosophy, art, poetry, science — exist beside, above and beyond the state, and often enough even against it,” he writes in “Reflections,” and it is a belief he never gave up.
In the light of history, much of “Reflections” can be dismissed easily enough, but the idea that we do damage to life’s most important elements when we use them instrumentally, for political ends, poses a real challenge to our moment, obsessed as it is with the political responsibility of the artist. Much about Mann’s book will be obscure to contemporary readers, but civilization’s literary man will be immediately recognizable. He (or she) is the novelist as social conscience, writer of earnest op-eds, signatory of open letters, eager panelist at PEN events, tweeter of #resistance memes. When Heinrich Mann praises Émile Zola as a spokesman for democratic values, he is praising him not as an artist but as civilization’s literary man, and when a recent Pulitzer Prize winner takes to the pages of The New York Times to praise writers who “texted voters, donated to activist causes, got into bitter fights on social media and wrote Op-Eds attacking the Trump administration,” he is doing the same.
It is an odd sociological fact that the demand to be reasonable, responsible and progressive is these days mostly made of homegrown writers. Over the past two decades, American literary culture has eagerly embraced a procession of international novelists — W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard — whose works obviously derive much of their power from their proximity to the dangerous, the illiberal, the demonic; the foreignness of these writers seems to exempt them from being read through the lens of U.S. domestic politics. And yet our fascination with them suggests that some part of us still recognizes the need for art that says at once “yes” and “no,” art that expresses internal contradictions rather than programs for reform, art that does not stand unambiguously on the side of health and life.
Mann was wrong to think that such art could not exist within a democracy. Indeed, liberal democracy at its best can be a great safeguard of the freedom to create such art. But he was not wrong to worry over democracy’s tendency to enlist art for its own ends, and he was not wrong to call for artists themselves to resist it.