Tuesday, July 27, 2010

''Art is a conservative power''

From Thomas Mann, Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918):
Art will never be moral in the political sense, never virtuous; progress will never be able to depend upon it. It has a basically undependable, treacherous tendency; its joy in scandalous antireason, its tendency to beauty-creating "barbarism," cannot be rooted out, yes, even if one calls this tendency hysterical, anti-intellectual, and immoral to the point of being a danger to the world: it is an immortal fact, and if one wanted to, or could, extirpate it from the world, one would certainly have freed the world from a grave danger, but at the same time one would almost certainly have freed it of art as well -- and only a few want that. An irrational power, but a great power; and the attachment of people to it proves that people neither can nor want to make do with rationality, that is; with the famous three-part equation of democratic wisdom, "reason = virtue = happiness."

Let one read, in this connection, the sinfully enthusiastic description that Baudelaire gives of the Tannhäuser march! "Who could," he cries, "in listening to these chords, which are so rich and proud, to this elegantly cadenced, magnificent rhythm, these royal fanfares, imagine anything else than a magical pomp, a parade of heroic men in shining costumes, all of great stature, all of strong will and naive belief, just as magnificent in their joys as terrible in their battles?"

And who, let us add, could fail to recognize that it is, in the sense of political virtue, the most questionable ideas that art awakens here?

Yesterday I heard Tschaikowsky's Symphonie Pathétique, this thoroughly dangerous work in its sweetness and savagery, which one neither hears nor understands without experiencing the irreconcilable antithesis of art and the spirit of literary virtue. I am thinking of the third movement with its malicious march music, which, if we had a censor in the service of democratic enlightenment, would absolutely have to be forbidden. So long as such things may not only be composed, but also performed; so long as this trumpet blare and cymbal clash is allowed among cultured people; so long, allow me to say, will there be wars on earth.

Art is a conservative power, the strongest of all; it preserves spiritual possibilities that without it -- perhaps -- would die out. So long as poets are possible -- and they will always be so -- whose wish and lament is to lie down in the deepest woods to forget "these stupid times,"
Of princely deeds and works
Of ancient honour and pomp,
And what may strengthen the soul,
Dreaming away the long night--
so long as their forward-directed longing will call forth the time when the Lord will put an end to things and tear from the deceitful one their unjust power:
Then Aurora will dawn
High up over the forest,
Then there will be something to sing and defeat
Then, loyal ones, awake--
--so long, I say, will the rule of that three-part equation, will democracy on earth, not be secure.

Let every utopia of progress, let the sanctification of the earth by reason -- every dream of social eudæmonism be fulfilled, the pacified, esperanto world become reality: air buses breeze over a "human race" that is clothed in white, pious with reason, statelessly-unified, monolingual, in the ultimate mastery of technology, with electric television: art will still live, and it will form an element of uncertainty and preserve the possibility, the conceivability, of relapse. It will speak of passion and unreason; it will present, cultivate and celebrate passion and unreason, hold primordial thoughts and instincts in honour, keep them awake or reawaken them with great force, the thought and instinct of war, for example. One will not be able to forbid it, because that would go against freedom.

Or will "the human race" live under absolutism, under the tyranny of reason, of virtue and of happiness?" Then it is all the more probable that art will go completely into the opposition -- and that everything that finds itself opposed to this ultimate tyranny will hold passionately to it. Art will seize the leadership of that party that seeks to overthrow the rule of virtue -- and it is a ravishing leader. In short, then: war, heroism of a reactionary type, all the mischief of unreason, will be thinkable and therefore possible so long as art exists, and its life will last and end only with that of the "human race."

-trans. W.D. Morris

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