“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mann's Goethe and Tolstoy

Before I begin, I can't emphasize enough that the blog I've labelled, News from Haiti, has become essential. They are publishing a chronicle of a fairly well known Haitian writer, Lyonel Trouillot. Those who can read French should go to this site. For those who can't, I might translate some of the Trouillot articles on News from the Zona, if I have time.

The one 19th century literary work that leaps most resolutely into the void of the artificial paradise is Goethe’s Faust, which from the very beginning seeks the transition from the medieval world – in which Aristotle and Nostradamus are equally valid routes to secret knowledge – to the modern world – in which there is only one route to all knowledge, and secrecy is simply a matter of encrypting. I’ve been pondering how to approach Faust for a while now, what doddering and crooked approach to make – ruled as I am by the idea that secrets cannot be dismissed so easily, nor universal history affirmed so flatly. How to circle around this monster?
Thus, I’ve been reading Kittler and Thomas Mann, particularly his essay on Goethe and Tolstoi. I’ve already written about Mann’s Doctor Faustus on News from the Zona, and mentioned the Goethe and Tolstoy essay as well. There are two versions of the latter; I have only the first one, the 1922 version, in German. The second version – much expanded and changed – is, I think, the basis for the English translation that I also have, in Essays of Three Decades, a volume published with a curious lack of information about what texts are being translated.
The 1922 version was written after Mann had flung the gauntlet down against ‘civilization’ – by which he meant French dominated Europe – in Non-Political Man. Mann was still traveling that dangerous route. He published the Goethe and Tolstoy essay, which was originally an address, in the Deutsche Rundschau in 1922. And, as we know, Mann was already in retreat from the company he’d been keeping at this point. Mann’s politics, or non-politics, grew directly out of his novelist’s sensibility. By 1922 he had received enough of an impression about where things were going in Germany that his conscience was bothering him. To be fair, that disquiet – in Mann, the dialectic always appears as disquiet – was present in the back and forth about Europe itself. Mann’s interpretation of Nietzsche, for instance, at first plunges towards the right – he forgets the Nietzsche who, at the end of his working life, claimed that it was tragic that he was forced to write in German rather than French, a devastating thing for a writer to say – by claiming Nietzsche as an ally in repelling the democratizing, leveling effect of European culture. But then he makes one of those very Mann-ian twists, and claims that even as Nietzsche assailed European liberalism, he became its strongest advocate by writing in the kind of German that threw off German barbarism, and that resembled nothing so much as the German of Heine, that most Parisian of Germans. Thus, Mann’s conversion to democracy – or rather his progress. under the only instinct he really trusted, that vast, ticklish irony of his, back to civilization, can be traced – for those with the Spursinn - in the second version of the essay.
But let’s talk about the first version of the essay. Rousseau, here, is the stand-in for French Civilization – the Rousseau in whose Confessions, Mann thought, one could discern the clang of the Revolutionary mob. And the Rousseau, too, who had such an impact on both Goethe and Tolstoy – Mann recalls that in Tolstoy, in his autobiography, wrote that when he was a teenager, he replaced the cross that hung from the chain around his neck with a medallion of Rousseau. Ah, fatal exchange!
What did Goethe and Tolstoy take from Rousseau? Two impulses: that of confessing, and that of educating. For Mann these connect, the circuit is completed, in Rousseau’s work, and of course from there it migrates to Goethe’s – from Werther to Dichtung und Wahrheit – and to Tolstoy’s.
Mann writes of this migration of impulses under the influence of the way Nietzsche would construct psychological types, as a sort of teleological shorthand for cultural history – that is, a shorthand in which the culture of an epoch found its sense, its direction - which was of course Burkhardt’s idea as well. And in many ways mine, even if I do not view these psychological types psychologically. One can easily see that Rousseau is figured by Mann in much the same way that Nietzsche figures the Redeemer in The Antichrist.
Mann quotes Merezhovsky’s essay about Tolstoy: “ ‘The artistic works of Tolstoy are fundamentally nothing other than a mighty diary kept up for fifty years, an endless, exhaustive confession.” And this critic adds further: ‘In the literature of all times and places, you will hardly find a second writer who strips his private life, yes, even the most intimate sides of it, with such great hearted sincerity, like Tolstoy.’ Great hearted – I observe that this is a somewhat euphemistic adjective. One could be, one wants to be ugly, and give this sincerity of the famous autobiographers other, coarse adjectives. ; in the sense, for instance, in which Turgenev once ironically labeled ‘mistakes’ that ‘the great writer cannot do without’. Obviously by which is meant the lack of certain inhibitions, of a certain, otherwise demanded feeling of shame, discretion, chasteness, modesty, or to use a politically incorrect turn of phrase, the dominance of a certain demand for love from the world, an unconditional one, in as much as, by self revelation, it is much the same if virtues or vices are revealed: one demands to be known and to be loved, loved, because known, or loved, in spite of being known. That is what I call the unconditional demand for love. It is curious that the world heeds this and does as it is asked.”
Confession and education – Faust, from the very beginning, is the man who has put all his sexual energy into the will to truth – and yet, as Kittler points out, we see him, from the beginning, translating logos – in the beginning was the word – with “Tun” – act – in the beginning was the deed. With that substitution, the thunder speaks.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A sense for traces

I'm going to try to tear my appalled attention away from Haiti, and begin a new thread about Goethe's Faust, book II. As Thomas Mann wrote in his essay, Goethe and Tolstoi, Goethe was a man of the 18th century whose Spuersinn - sense of traces - foresaw the 19th: "the whole social-economic development of the 19th century, the industrialization of the old cultural and agricultural lands, the domination of the machine, the rise of organized labor, the class conflicts, democracy, socialism, Americanism even, along with the sum total of intellectual and educational consequences that organically come out of these changes.” In Mann's Doktor Faustus the narrator, Zeitblum, remarks that it wasn't until the end of World War I that the ancien regime - a way of thinking stretching back to the 14th century - finally collapsed. In this respect, the "Spursinne" for what I'd call the advent of the artificial paradise has to be put in relation to the fact that, for the great mass of people even in the 'advanced' countries like France and Germany, it touched them only at the edges.

To return, for a moment, to the scenes that we can't get out of our head of Haiti - the place that created the sugar and rum wealth of France and, by extension, Europe, the land that received, like a giant maw, hundreds of thousands of black bodies and swallowed them in the 18th century, ate them up, chewed up 500,000 - to see the earthquake knock down the artificial paradise is to see how it adheres to our skin and bones, how we only move within it, even those of us who are on the edge of it, and how, destroyed, it destroys us.