A Non-Political Man

[In the latest issue of The American Conservative I have a review of a new translation of Reflections of a Non-Political Man by the German novelist Thomas Mann. The whole thing is now free to read on TAC’s website. Here are some of my favorite bits—if I may say so myself.]

Men like Mann and [Charles] Maurras were not real monarchists, Christians, or reactionaries. They didn’t love authority so much as power. They didn’t admire any ancient regime; they just hated the modern world. Mann approvingly quotes Wagner as saying that, in “an absolute king…the concept of freedom is elevated to the highest, God-filled consciousness, and the people are only free when one man rules, not when many rule.” Now, that man could be another Charlemagne; he could just as easily be someone like Hitler.

And, eventually, it was Hitler. On the eve of World War II, virtually all of these “vitalists” sided with the Axis Powers. They dropped Christian monarchy like yesterday’s newspaper and embraced what António de Oliveira Salazar called “pagan Caesarism.” Meanwhile, true reactionaries like G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, and Salazar himself aligned with the Allies against fascism. Claus von Stauffenberg, the chief conspirator behind Operation Valkyrie, was a Catholic and a monarchist.

(…)

Mann says that politics has become “an atmosphere, permeating all vital air so that with every breath drawn it forms the main element of all psychological structure.” We think in political terms. We can’t help it. We can’t stop, even if we want to—and most of us really do want to.

Isn’t that the essence of totalitarianism? When even the very air we breathe is saturated with ideology? When the citizen’s relationship to the state forms his very “psychological structure”?

I agree with Reginald Jeeves, that consummate reactionary, that Nietzsche is “fundamentally unsound.” Yet no sane person can help but agree with his recommendation, as quoted by Mann, that we “avoid reading newspapers every day or even serving a party.” That’s how we become nonpolitical men. It’s a feat Thomas Mann himself never quite managed, though not for lack of trying.

[Again, you can read the rest at The American Conservative‘s website. I hope you enjoy it.]

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