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The Coming Victory of Democracy: Thomas Mann on Justice, Human Dignity, and the Need to Continually Renew Our Ideals

“To come close to art means to come close to life, and if an appreciation of the dignity of man is the moral definition of democracy, then its psychological definition arises out of its determination to reconcile and combine knowledge and art, mind and life, thought and deed.”

The Coming Victory of Democracy: Thomas Mann on Justice, Human Dignity, and the Need to Continually Renew Our Ideals

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her stirring essay on optimism and despair. But what does the reinvention, reassertion, and survival of progress look like when the basic fabric of democracy is under claw?

That is what Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955) examined on the cusp of World War II with a prescience that bellows across the decades to speak to our own epoch and to every epoch that will succeed us.

Thomas Mann at his desk (Thomas Mann Archive)

When Hitler seized power in 1933, the 58-year-old Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature five years earlier, went into exile in Switzerland. The following year, he visited America for the first time. He returned each year thereafter, until he finally emigrated permanently in 1938 and became one of a handful of German expatriates in the United States to vocally oppose Nazism and fascism. Between February and May 1938, just before the outbreak of the war, Mann gave a series of poignant and rousing lectures across America, published later that year as The Coming Victory of Democracy (public library) — a spirited insistence that “we must not be afraid to attempt a reform of freedom,” and a clarion call for the urgent work of continually renewing and reasserting democracy as menacing ideologies rise and fall against it.

In a testament to the great Serbian-American physicist, chemist, and inventor Michael Pupin’s assertion that “an immigrant can see things which escape the attention of the native,” Mann opens with an incisive reflection on democracy, its original ideals, and the necessity of its continual recalibration to the pressures pushing against it:

America needs no instruction in the things that concern democracy. But instruction is one thing — and another is memory, reflection, re-examination, the recall to consciousness of a spiritual and moral possession of which it would be dangerous to feel too secure and too confident. No worth-while possession can be neglected. Even physical things die off, disappear, are lost, if they are not cared for, if they do not feel the eye and hand of the owner and are lost to sight because their possession is taken for granted. Throughout the world it has become precarious to take democracy for granted — even in America… Even America feels today that democracy is not an assured possession, that it has enemies, that it is threatened from within and from without, that it has once more become a problem. America is aware that the time has come for democracy to take stock of itself, for recollection and restatement and conscious consideration, in a word, for its renewal in thought and feeling.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Martha Graham’s notion of “divine dissatisfaction” as the motive force of all creative work, Mann notes that a certain restlessness about the state of the world and our place in it is inherent to the human animal:

It is the fate of man in no condition and under no circumstances ever to be entirely at ease upon this earth; no form of life is wholly suitable nor wholly satisfactory to him. Why this should be so, why there should always remain upon earth for this creature a modicum of insufficiency, of dissatisfaction and suffering, is a mystery — a mystery that may be a very honourable one for man, but also a very painful one; in any case it has this consequence: that humanity, in small things as in great, strives for variety, change, for the new, because it promises him an amelioration and an alleviation of his eternally semi-painful condition.

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice in Wonderland

The greatest threat to democracy, Mann argues, comes from demagogues who prey on this restlessness with dangerous ideologies whose chief appeal is “the charm of novelty” — the exploitive promise of a new world order that allays some degree of dissatisfaction for some number of people, at a gruesome cost to the rest of humanity. To counter this perilous tendency, democracy must continually regenerate itself. Mann writes:

Daring and clever as fascism is in exploiting human weakness, it succeeds in meeting to some extent humanity’s painful eagerness for novelty… And what seems to me necessary is that democracy should answer this fascist strategy with a rediscovery of itself, which can give it the same charm of novelty — yes, a much higher one than that which fascism seeks to exert. It should put aside the habit of taking itself for granted, of self-forgetfulness. It should use this wholly unexpected situation — the fact, namely, that it has again become problematical — to renew and rejuvenate itself by again becoming aware of itself. For democracy’s resources of vitality and youthfulness cannot be overestimated… Fascism is a child of the times — a very offensive child — and draws whatever youth it possesses out of the times. But democracy is timelessly human, and timelessness always implies a certain amount of potential youthfulness, which need only be realized in thought and feeling in order to excel, by far, all merely transitory youthfulness in charms of every sort, in the charm of life and in the charm of beauty.

That particular strain of fascism was endemic to Mann’s time, but it has manifested in myriad guises countless times before and since. In a letter penned at the peak of the war Mann was hoping to prevent with this humanistic shift in consciousness, John Steinbeck would capture these cycles chillingly: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Art by Tomi Ungerer from his visionary book Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear .

Mann considers the idea of justice as elemental to our humanity, locating in it the wellspring of our dignity:

It is a singular thing, this human nature, and distinguished from the rest of nature by the very fact that it has been endowed with the idea, is dominated by the idea, and cannot exist without it, since human nature is what it is because of the idea. The idea is a specific and essential attribute of man, that which makes him human. It is within him a real and natural fact, so impossible of neglect that those who do not respect human nature’s participation in the ideal — as force certainly does not — commit the clumsiest and, in the long run, the most disastrous mistakes. But the word “ justice ” is only one name for the idea — only one; there are other names which can be substituted that are equally strong, by no means lacking in vitality; on the contrary, even rather terrifying — for example, freedom and truth. It is impossible to decide which one should take precedence, which is the greatest. For each one expresses the idea in its totality, and one stands for the others. If we say truth, we also say freedom and justice-, if we speak of freedom and justice, we mean truth. It is a complex of an indivisible kind, freighted with spirituality and elementary dynamic force. We call it the absolute. To man has been given the absolute — be it a curse or a blessing, it is a fact. He is pledged to it, his inner being is conditioned by it, and in the human sphere a force which is opposed to truth, hostile to freedom, and lacking in justice, acts in so low and contemptible a manner because it is devoid of feeling and understanding for the relationship between man and the absolute and without comprehension of the inviolable human dignity which grows out of this relationship.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions.

A quarter century before the pioneering social scientist John Gardner penned his influential treatise on self-renewal, Mann calls for a reinvention of democracy that places human dignity at the heart of its political and civic ideals:

We must reach higher and envisage the whole. We must define democracy as that form of government and of society which is inspired above every other with the feeling and consciousness of the dignity of man.

Echoing Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition against the cowardice of cynicism as one of the greatest obstacles to a flourishing society, Mann calls for relinquishing our reflexive cynicism about human nature:

The dignity of man — do we not feel alarmed and somewhat ridiculous at the mention of these words? Do they not savour of optimism grown feeble and stuffy — of after-dinner oratory, which scarcely harmonizes with the bitter, harsh, everyday truth about human beings? We know it — this truth. We are well aware of the nature of man, or, to be more accurate, the nature of men — and we are far from entertaining any illusions on the subject… Yes, yes, humanity — its injustice, malice, cruelty, its average stupidity and blindness are amply demonstrated, its egoism is crass, its deceitfulness, cowardice, its antisocial instincts, constitute our everyday experience; the iron pressure of disciplinary constraint is necessary to keep it under any reasonable control. Who cannot embroider upon the depravity of this strange creature called man, who does not often despair over his future… And yet it is a fact — more true today than ever — that we cannot allow ourselves, because of so much all too well-founded skepticism, to despise humanity. Despite so much ridiculous depravity, we cannot forget the great and the honourable in man, which manifest themselves as art and science, as passion for truth, creation of beauty and the idea of justice; and it is also true that insensitiveness to the great mystery which we touch upon when we say “man” or “humanity” signifies spiritual death. That is not a truth of yesterday or the day before yesterday, antiquated, unattractive, and feeble. It is the new and necessary truth of today and tomorrow, the truth which has life and youth on its side in opposition to the false and withering youthfulness of certain theories and truths of the moment.

It is only a difference of degree, not of kind, between this ordinary cynical contempt for human goodness and the most extreme acts of evil. Mann writes:

Terror destroys people, that is clear. It corrupts character, releases every evil impulse, turns them into cowardly hypocrites and shameless informers. It makes them contemptible — that is the reason why these contemners of humanity love terrorism.

Thomas Mann with Albert Einstein at Princeton, 1938.

Twenty years before Aldous Huxley asserted that “generalized intelligence and mental alertness are the most powerful enemies of dictatorship and at the same time the basic conditions of effective democracy,” Mann places education and critical thinking at the center of a robust democracy:

Democracy wishes to elevate mankind, to teach it to think, to set it free. It seeks to remove from culture the stamp of privilege and disseminate it among the people — in a word, it aims at education. Education is an optimistic and humane concept; and respect for humanity is inseparable from it. Hostile to mankind and contemptuous of it is the opposing concept called propaganda, which tries to stultify, stupefy, level, or regiment men for the purpose of military efficiency and, above all, to keep the dictatorial system in power.

[…]

Democracy being a fertile ground for intellect and literature, for the perception of psychological truth and the search for it, contradicts itself inasmuch as it has an acute appreciation and makes a critical analysis of the absurd wickedness of man, but nevertheless insists resolutely upon the dignity of man and the possibility of educating him.

In consonance with Iris Murdoch’s assertion that “tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Mann considers art as a pillar of democracy:

To come close to art means to come close to life, and if an appreciation of the dignity of man is the moral definition of democracy, then its psychological definition arises out of its determination to reconcile and combine knowledge and art, mind and life, thought and deed.

Complement The Coming Victory of Democracy with Leonard Cohen on democracy’s breakages and redemptions, Jill Lepore on the improbable birth of American democracy, Robert Penn Warren on democracy and poetry, and Walt Whitman’s indispensable Democratic Vistas, then revisit Mann on time and our search for meaning.

BP

Crescendo: A Watercolor Ode to the Science, Strangeness, and Splendor of Pregnancy

From sesame seed to selfhood, a lyrical serenade to the astonishing process by which we all enter the world.

Crescendo: A Watercolor Ode to the Science, Strangeness, and Splendor of Pregnancy

“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the trailblazing psychologist Donald Winnicott observed in his landmark manifesto for the mother’s contribution to society. Inseparable from the psychological role of mothering is the biological reality of motherhood — a biology almost alien in its otherworldly strangeness as a cell becomes a being, with a heart and a mind and a whole life ahead.

That glorious strangeness is what Paola Quintavalle celebrates in Crescendo (public library) — an uncommon picture-poem about the science of pregnancy, evocative of Ursula K. Le Guin’s lovely insistence that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside [and] both celebrate what they describe.”

Unfolding across lyrical watercolors by Italian artist Alessandro Sanna — who painted the wordless masterpieces Pinocchio: The Origin Story and The River — the story follows the growth of an almost-being inside a mother’s womb over the nine months of gestation. As small as a sesame seed, it soon sprouts the buds that will blossom into arms and legs, grows its first organ — the heart — and develops its first senses, smell and sound.

By the third month, the fetus gets its fur coat, known as lanugo, and the first fragments of its miniature skeleton begin to form. By month four, fingerprints are being carved onto its tiny digits.

Visual metaphors drawing on the lives of other beings — a bird, a horse, a flower, a school of fish — populate Sanna’s watercolor score of Quintavalle’s spare, poetic chronicle of becoming, their geometry cleverly mirroring the curvature of the mother’s belly that frames the story.

What strikes me is that each of us has undergone this absolutely astonishing process, with no conscious memory of it at all, and yet somehow we don’t walk around in perpetual astonishment that this is how we came to be. Perhaps we should. I am reminded of the great poet and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley’s words: “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

Couple Crescendo with Argentine artist, author, and singer Isol’s lovely picture-book about the mysterious and mystifying creature that emerges from birth, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s bold open letter to the BBC about the choice to become a mother as a working artist, and pioneering investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens’s playful, profound 1925 meditation on fatherhood.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

BP

Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

Tonic for living with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world.

Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

To be an artist is to live suspended above the abyss between recognition and artistic value, never quite knowing whether your art will land on either bank, or straddle both, or be swallowed by the fathomless pit of obscurity. We never know how our work stirs another mind or touches another heart, how it tenons into the mortise of the world. We never know who will discover it in a year or a generation or a century and be salved by it, saved by it. “The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, not fully knowing — or perhaps not knowing at all — that she was revolutionizing the art of her time.

This is the perennial problem of the artist, for the crown bestowed or denied by the fickle tastes of a contemporary public has little bearing on how the work itself will stand the test of time as a vessel for truth and beauty, whether it will move generations or petrify into oblivion. Walt Whitman nearly perished in obscurity when his visionary Leaves of Grass was first met with scorn and indifference. Emily Dickinson, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, never lived to see her work transform a century of thought and feeling. Germaine de Staël captured this elemental pitfall of creative work in her astute observation that “true glory cannot be obtained by a relative celebrity.”

In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity. How, then, is an artist to live with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world, and go on making art?

That is what W.S. Merwin (September 30, 1927–March 15, 2019) explores in a stunning poem celebrating his mentor, the poet John Berryman, published in Merwin’s 2005 book Migration: New & Selected Poems (public library). At its heart is the single greatest, most difficult, most beautiful truth about creative work, enfolding a soul-salving piece of advice on how to stay sane as an artist.

John Berryman (Photograph: The Paris Review)

Berryman had co-founded Princeton’s creative writing program and was teaching there when Merwin enrolled as a freshman in 1944. The thirty-year-old professor immediately recognized an uncommon genius in the seventeen-year-old aspiring poet, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — “the real thing,” Berryman’s then-wife would later recall his sentiment. Merwin himself would remember his mentor as “absolutely ruthless” — a quality he cherished. That constructive, edifying ruthlessness, for which Merwin was forever indebted, comes alive with unsentimental tenderness in this poem commemorating his formative teacher, read here by astrophysicist, literary artist, and poetry steward Janna Levin:

BERRYMAN
by W.S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers:

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

Complement with artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of “making not knowing” and this collection of timeless advice from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Levin’s gorgeous readings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s hymn to time, Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first woman astronomer, and W.H. Auden’s elegy for unrequited love.

BP

Art and the Nocturnal Imagination: Painter, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Dreaming and Creativity

“The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake. In dreams the mind at last finds its courage: it dares what we do not dare.”

Art and the Nocturnal Imagination: Painter, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Dreaming and Creativity

Nietzsche saw dreams as an evolutionary time machine for the human mind. Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in one. Mendeleev invented his periodic table in another. Neil Gaiman dreamt his way to a philosophical parable of identity. We are born dreaming. As we go through life, dream-sleep plays plays a major role in regulating our negative emotions.

When we dream, we are our most essential and sovereign selves — our shadows the starkest, our creativity the wildest, and all of it, crucially, ours alone. We build and unravel entire worlds, answering to no one but ourselves — and even that, only hazily. Graham Greene celebrated this sovereignty when he observed in his dream diary that “it can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else.”

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreaming

We still don’t know exactly why the human animal needs to sleep, much less to dream. But we do know that the mechanism churning our nocturnal fancies is closely related to the faculty we call creativity. Dreams may be the most populist art there is and the wellspring of our most visionary masterpieces.

That is what the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) explores in a few meditative passages from Journey to Mount Tamalpais (public library) — the 1986 treasure that gave us Adnan on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.

Adnan writes:

I always thought that dreaming was the honor of the human species. The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake. In dreams the mind at last finds its courage: it dares what we do not dare. It also creates: from nightmares to fantastic calculations… and it perceives reality beyond our fuzzy interpretations. In dreams we swim and fly and we are not surprised.

[…]

Dreams spill over on our days. For some people they never stop spilling: the visionaries, the hobos, and all those who speak to themselves, aloud, in the big cities.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Adnan considers the parallels between dreaming and creative work:

Sometimes, while painting, something wild gets unleashed. Something of the process of dreams recurs… but with a special kind of violence: a painting is like a territory. All kinds of things happen within its boundary, equal to the discoveries of the murders or the creations we have in the world outside.

We translate our dreams on paper and cloth, subduing them, most of the time, fearing that moment of truth which has energy enough to blow up the world.

Couple with Adnan on the self and the universe, then revisit Mark Strand’s stunning poem about dreams and Billy Hayes on the science of sleep and sleeplessness.

BP

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