culture, history, literature

Endurance in War and Politics for Non-Political Souls

I wrote in my previous post about the rhetoric of “as long as it takes” on Ukraine. How it is a feature of stubborn decision-makers, and the opting decisions of war. How NATO aligned elites might detach from this doomed path, but I am not holding my breath, too long.

I doubt they will, not until they feel the pain of defeat themselves. But I will continue to speak in favour of the path for dialogue and diplomacy, for as long as it takes.

The Burning Archive 4 September 2023

But it is not easy. It does take its toll. There is a war of attrition going on in all of our minds, not just the battlefields of the Ukrainian-Russian steppe. It is difficult to endure war as a citizen of democracy, when that democracy conscripts you in an enduring war against your own conscience. It is difficult to bear with the slowness of war. It does not end after a neat drama of eight 45 minute episodes. It makes you realise, along with the more general degradation of public political culture, that to live well, to live mindfully with this human historical drama unpredictably unfolding in our times, one must look beyond politics, or at least politics as spectacle.

Endurance of the wars and the politics of the day may require turning away from politics. This week I came across two texts related to two Nobel Prize winning authors that illustrated aspects of this dilemma.

I was reading the poems and a biography of William Butler Yeats in preparation for my upcoming podcast on Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature 100 years ago in 1923. Yeats was a spiritualist, a mystic, a practitioner of arcane knowledge. Yet he also took passionate positions on political issues and became a Senator in the Irish republic in the 1920s. Despite this apparent record of engagement, in 1923 St John Ervine (another Irish writer and playwright) claimed, with some personal knowledge, that Yeats was isolated from the “common life of his time”, and that Ervine believed that he:

“had never met anyone who seems so unaware of contemporary affairs… due not to affectation, but sheer lack of interest. He probably would not have known of the War at all had not the Germans dropped a bomb near his lodgings off the Euston Road.”

Yet Yeats wrote some of the most profound poems on experiencing the historical drama of politics, something I will return to in my podcast. Perhaps there is greater wisdom in being a non-political person?

Yeats also led me to Thomas Mann. In one of Yeats’ last poems from the latter 1930s, ‘Politics’, which I quote at the end of this newsletter, he engaged in a dialogue with his fellow Nobel laureate, the German novelist and author of the great Magic Mountain, Buddenbrooks and Dr Faustus. This poem has an epigraph from Thomas Mann that expressed a common sentiment of intellectuals of the democratic age after 1918:

“In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms” (Thomas Mann)

This belief has only intensified since the 1960s, with the ethos that the personal is political. But perhaps it is also becoming a tyrannical belief that traps us in ways of thinking that do not suit our culture, our history, our lives, our endurance through too many wards, or the tawdry reality of our post-democratic politics.

It was a belief that Mann assumed in later life. In 1918 Thomas Mann had written a very different set of Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. This text is controversial (discussed here and here) and I do not know it well. But it does reflects a different ethos of living in the imperfect societies of the early twentieth century in which the pre-democratic could sustain the good, the democratic could tyrannise and oppress, and the post-democratic was slouching towards Bethlehem to be born (as Yeats said in ‘The Second Coming’). I discovered this text, or fragments of it, by chance this week, and have not read it all. But here is an excerpt, that I hope you agree, has eerie affinities to our own time when we are learning that democracy is not all it is cracked up to be, and we pray that our destinies are revealed in terms better than politics.

Let me quote two passages, stripped of the more nationally focussed arguments, that resonate with my dilemma of whether to pursue a life of culture separate from politics.

First, Mann wrote of the political culture of 1918 in ways reminiscent of strands of politics in 2023:

I met the New Passion, then, as democracy, as political enlightenment and the humanitarianism of happiness. I understood its efforts to be toward the politicization of everything ethos; its aggressiveness and doctrinary intolerance consisted – I experienced them personally – in its denial and slander of every nonpolitical ethos. “Mankind” as humanitarian internationalism; “reason” and “virtue” as the radical republic; intellect as a thing between a Jacobin club and Freemasonry; art as social literature and maliciously seductive rhetoric in the service of social “desirability”; here we have the New Passion in its purest political form as I saw it close up. I admit that this is a special, extremely romanticized form of it. But my destiny was to experience it in this way; and then, as I have already said, it is always at any moment on the verge of assuming this form: “active intellect,” that is: an intellect that is “resolved” to be active in favor of enlightened world liberation, world improvement, world happiness, does not long remain “politics” in the more abstract, figurative sense; it is immediately so in the strict, real sense as well. And – to ask the question again foolishly – what kind of politics is this?

Second, he insisted on separating the life of the mind from the political. In a society when everything personal has become totally political, this is a cry from the heart.

What provoked the deepest element in me, my national instinct, was the cry for “politics” in that meaning of the word that belongs to the intellectual sphere: it is the “politicization of the intellect,” the distortion of the concept of intellect into that of reforming enlightenment, of revolutionary humanitarianism, that works like poison and orpiment on me; and I know that my disgust and protest is not something insignificantly personal and temporary, but that here the national character itself is speaking through me. Intellect is not politics.

Source: Extract from Thomas Mann, Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918). Translated, with an introduction, by Walter D. Morris. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983, pp. 16-18.

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Image credit: Thomas Mann

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