The text below is an extract from Lukacs’ essay “In Search of Bourgeois Man”, written in 1945 in honour of the seventieth birthday of Thomas Mann. In it, Lukacs traces Mann’s development from Buddenbrooks to the war-time Lotte in Weimar. His perspective is the whole ulterior development of German history. After 1933, Lukacs was haunted by the eclipse of German culture, which had been perhaps the richest and most vital in Europe in the formative years of his youth, and which had collapsed in barbarism. He returned to this theme again and again. “In Search of Bourgeois Man” is a tribute to Mann for his prescience and his resistance to fascism. Mann, who had often stayed with Lukacs’ parents in Budapest before 1914, reported an early encounter with Lukacs characteristically: “I have met Lukacs personally. He once spent an hour in Vienna giving me his ideas. He was right so long as he was talking. Even if afterwards I only remembered an impression of an almost unbearable degree of abstractness . . .” More than thirty years later he wrote a direct testimonial to the intelligence of the mature Lukacs: “There is no doubt that this birthday essay, ‘In Search of Bourgeois Man’ was a sociological and psychological portrayal of my life and work grander in scale and manner than anything I have ever yet received . . .”
The essay opens with an examination of Buddenbrooks and Mann’s work before 1914. The sections below follow.
This was the frame of mind in which Thomas Mann drifted into the First World War. It was a frame of mind which reflected the development of his country. He was, of course, in a dubious situation philosophically speaking. When we look back on this period from the vantage-point of the present we can see just how paradoxical a situation it was. Mann’s fictional criticism of Prussianism reached its peak at the very moment when the national crisis broke out—and when his personal and political attachment to the Prussian cause was at its height. With the historian’s prophetic hindsight we are horrified to see how little Thomas Mann followed his own literary development through to its logical conclusion at this period. How passionately he drew false conclusions from his own work!
But it is not sufficient to stare with platonic wonder at contradictions in a philosopher. We must try to understand the problem sympathetically. This is not to defend Mann’s war writings. If, as still happens in England and America, later works like The Magic Mountain (1924) are interpreted in the light of the Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (1918), the result is necessarily a reactionary caricature. We must realise that Mann’s political outburst in the First World War was not simply a chance phase in his “search for bourgeois man”; it must be understood as an inevitable stage in the disastrous general development of modern German thought.
Up to this point we have followed the problematical elements in Mann’s work as these were posed for their creator. But that was their social basis? (not that Mann was aware of it at the time). Some ten years after the First World War Mann gave an excellent description of the relationship between most of the major German thinkers and their country’s political development. He was writing about Richard Wagner and “his participation in the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, which cost him twelve years of tortured exile and which he later minimized and denied as much as he could. He repented of his “heedless” optimism and confused to the best of his ability the fait accompli of Bismarck’s Reich with the realisation of his early dreams. This was the path of the German bourgeoisie itself, from revolution to disillusionment, to pessimism and to a resigned, power-protected, emotional solipsism.”
This last attitude has a long history behind it, which is deeply rooted in the miserable political development of Germany. I have to touch on it here since it not only throws light on Mann himself but also clarifies his relationship to the German middle class.
To summarize: apart from exceptional figures like Lessing, the whole of German classical literature and philosophy grew up in an atmosphere of “power-protected emotional solipsism”. No doubt the semi-feudal absolutism of the petty principalities seemed questionable to German thinkers and writers of the time; and often they were sincerely opposed to it. But when Napoleon’s invasion thrust real power onto the scene, power bent on transforming political and social conditions, the best Germans were fiercely divided. Goethe and Hegel opted for Napoleon and were prepared to see the whole of Germany turned into something like the Confederation of the Rhine. The Phenomenology of Mind, completed at the time of the Battle of Jena (1806), described the French Revolution and the new bourgeois society it had created as the climax of modern history and admonished the Germans that it would be their task to create an ideological superstructure appropriate to the new conditions. This was “power-protected solipsism” with a vengeance. This power meanwhile guaranteed those political and social reforms which Napoleon was to introduce against the wishes of the princes of the Confederation of the Rhine. (Some years later Hegel was to call Napoleon the “great constitutional lawyer of Paris”).