Thursday, October 28, 2021

Good Books #2: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann


The world doesn't have to like Thomas Mann, but the world has to reckon with him and his grim, deterministic view of humanity that believes every human's fate is their character. One might call it tragic if his vision had humanity, but Mann's novels sometimes read like military campaigns which proceed from an outline hewed to as strictly as an iron cast; he sees humans as little more than animals with a language - biological organisms whose every articulate thought is a mere extension of animal instinct. Like a model student in Bismarck's Germany, everything in Mann is seen as either strength or weakness, and weakness is something Mann views with a fascination that borders on pornographic. He sees in every human indulgence a corrupting worm that weakens body and spirit, which he views as indivisible, and lovingly documents human decline at every phase from the mountain's peak to the ocean's floor. Like Nietzsche and Wagner and Marx, he is one of those troublingly uncompassionate artists whom we are free not to like, but we can't simply ignore, because as dark as their view of humanity is, they have a lot of evidence to back up that they're right. Even if you disagree with them, you have to know them well enough to argue with them, because even if their worldviews are wrong, they are compelling enough to convince millions.
Buddenbrooks is, by a long shot, my favorite book by a writer I don't particularly like. Mann was a genius who wrote one of the greatest of all novels by the time he was 25. During his early 20s, Mann created a 770 page portrait of a family, of an age, of a city, a country, of families the world over, of history itself, that showed an entirely new world-perspective. The work begins as though it's Jane Austen, and ends with all the tragedy of King Lear, and in between documents a process of entropy with a clinical eye much more accurate than anything in Freud. It begins amid the sense of purpose which so many 19th century denizens found in the belief that all things were improving, only for every expectation of progress to be dashed along the seashore's rocks. It was a new kind of novel from a new generation, who realized that something in European society had come terribly unmoored, and every secure expectation with which their parents lived their lives would not be the expectations of their own. Thomas Mann's first novel, in its oblique way, was a prophecy of everything imminent.
Just as people die, just as civilizations die, so too do families. The novel begins amid the prosperity of the post-Napoleonic peace, an era when German speaking lands flourished because France was crushed and Germany had learned all the lessons of modern France. Families like the Buddenbrooks were free to experience all the benefits of French culture and none of the drawbacks of French dominance. They lived free from expectation and were free to newly create themselves during an era when noblemen no longer dominated them. They were not only free, they were whole. They were more than merely happy, they were fulfilled - they knew exactly who and what they were supposed to be.
And yet in every rise is an original sin that begins an irreversible process of decline. All that rises falls. For those fortunate enough to rise, the rise is usually very quick, and it's very arbitrary whom among the millions of hard workers is chosen for great things. The fall is so much slower, it has so many stages along the way, and is far more observable:
First comes the materialist generation who rises because they have a realistic view of the world and uses it to their advantage - today we call them the 'Greatest Generation.' Then comes a spiritual generation who sees an invisible hand in all things which always clears a way to their prosperity - today we call them the 'Baby Boomers.' Then comes a generation of expectations, for whom the way of life is so codified that they find the expectations with which they grew up impossible to meet, or so all-consuming that maintaining their identity becomes a prison with no escape, today we call them 'millenials.' And then comes a generation who never has a chance to develop their identity at all.
And from the solidity of that first generation who knows exactly what their lives are, comes a process in which the consistent expectations of one generation give way to a world where nobody knows what to do anymore; a process where consistent work and expectations gives way to a roller coaster of boredom and overstimulation, until many in the later generations have no idea how to live without overstimulation, and expend all the energies of their lives before they can truly meet their potential and purpose.
Hopefully, all this reminds you of someone. Whether it's over four generations or nine, this is the process by which civilizations decline. This is, almost unquestionably, the process by which prosperity dissipates and warps the perceptions of those who live within it. We, the Americans born between my age and 1996, are the generation of Thomas and Christian Buddenbrook - either so beset by expectations for our lives that we're entombed by them, or so desperate to run away from our life expectations that we ruin our lives in the process.
It's obviously not the whole human story, and still greater novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky can show how those seeming dissipations carry the seeds of a new rise, and also that prosperity itself is a false, arbitrary state of affairs. Life and history are cycles just as all nature is. What makes Thomas Mann great is that he is a great documentarian of the life cycle's declining half. What makes him deeply troubling is that he does not document the rise. It's up to the greatest of the great, like Shakespeare or Goethe, to document the whole life cycle.
But Mann, like us, has the sense that he arrived too late to really experience prosperity and security. He, like us, are living witnesses to a civilization in its late phase. We only came onto the stage when the play was more than half over, and all that's left to do now is watch the final act. The poor new generation may not even get to experience the final act and can only watch as the scenery gets dismantled. All things that rise do fall, and the US-lead world is now full of millions of Buddenbrooks-like families, worried they are at the high tide of their prosperity, with a crash imminent and a tragic decline soon to follow.
But during World War II, Thomas Mann came to America, the country where the life cycle was renewed. Mann's own own personal life was a shambles - he was a closeted and celibate homosexual with six children, and his children's lives were a bizarre intermingling of tragedy and colossal achievement. But within that mess, Mann stood in the world's eyes, rightly, as a symbol of everything that was great and healthy about Germany. A artist bordering on prophet who saw the civilization's rot for what it was fifty years before Europe itself had to acknowledge its extent. In spite of Mann's fatalism, in spite of Europe's terrible fate, life muddled on, civilization muddled on, prosperity and freedom endured - even if it journeyed to another part of the globe for a while, and eventually, within the seeds of that decline was the glorious future of modern Germany, modern Europe, and modern families. All things of this earth are meant to be destroyed and rebuilt. Whatever Buddenbrooks were born after 1877 probably made their fortune over by 1905 only to lose half their children in World War I and their money in the hyperinflation that followed; and then remade their fortune in the Nazi era only to lose more money and progeny in the accompanying wars, only to make their money back in the economic miracle following the war (if they stayed around Lubeck and Hamburg), and keep it for a lifetime.
The next American lifetime is probably going to be a far greater roller coaster than the last one. It's likely we'll see terrible things we wish we'd never seen, both things done to us and things we do to others, and in whatever comes, it's quite possible that for all we've suffered, we will be the worse villains... But whatever is coming next for 'US', the world rebuilds back better, and for whomever is left, there is a secure future in store for more fortunate generations just as there's been for modern Germany

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