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Devil’s Bargain
Rob Riemen exposes, and yet also exemplifies, sophisticated irrationalism.
30 May 2008

Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, by Rob Riemen, trans. Marjolijn de Jager (Yale University Press, 160 pp., $22)

At first glance, Rob Riemen’s Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal suggests that its author is not a typical postmodern European intellectual. Judging the slender book by its cover, you nod approvingly at the plain white dust jacket with the single adornment of a tiny stylized torch, suggesting the classical; flipping through it, you note such reassuring names as Socrates, Goethe, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and especially Thomas Mann. Riemen himself, moreover, is the founder of the Nexus Institute in the Netherlands, whose mission, according to its website, is “to act as a leading international centre for intellectual reflection and to inspire the Western cultural and philosophical debate.” CULTURAL PHILOSOPHER EXTOLS CLASSICAL HUMANISTIC VALUES AS KEY TO THE FUTURE, blares the marketing copy from Yale University Press. Man bites dog!

And yet this collection—consisting of a strange and lengthy introduction, a biographical sketch of Thomas Mann, a second essay questioning whether philosophers are suited to be kings, and another exploring the notion of intellectual bravery—disappoints on numerous counts. On the matter of America, it’s true, that second essay is refreshingly un-European, denouncing anti-Americanism in general, as well as the “sizable group of prominent and leftist intellectuals,” from Dario Fo to Norman Mailer, who portrayed the murderous terrorism of September 11 as a legitimate attack against an evil empire. Riemen rightly notes the long history of such intellectual complicity with evil. “How many academics, writers, poets, artists, scientists, simply pushed civilized life aside to line up behind the triumph of the lie, dictatorship, and violence?” he asks. “How many scholars placed their intellectual talents in the service of the justification of terror? We don’t dare to count them all. The list is endless.”

The essay also performs the immensely valuable task of reminding us of the century’s greatest fictional depiction of intellectual evil, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Riemen refers to just one (unforgettable) episode from the novel, which describes a crowd of respectable intellectuals gathering in Munich between the World Wars; they include, Mann writes, a “philosophic palaeozoologist” who uses fossils to verify ancient German sagas, an historian who has written a “much esteemed history of German literature from the point of view of racial origins,” and a poet whose bloody masterpiece approvingly describes a ruthless emperor, one “Christus Imperator Maximus,” who “levied troops prepared to die for the subjection of the globe.” The intellectuals eagerly anticipate “an old-new world of revolutionary reaction, in which the values bound up with the idea of the individual—shall we say truth, freedom, law, reason?—were entirely rejected and shorn of power.” They reject the viability of the democratic Weimar Republic, assuming that such a form of government must eventually surrender to absolute despotism. But this future of “violence, authority, the dictatorship of belief” does not alarm them; on the contrary, they sympathize with it. “It is coming, it is coming,” the narrator imagines their thinking, “and when it is here it will find us on the crest of the moment.” Their philosophy not only predicts but enables the rise of Hitler.

Riemen’s caution against trusting intellectuals is very useful, then—but the rest of the book too often confirms his warning in an unintended fashion. Start with that strange and lengthy introduction, in which Riemen recalls a conversation with Mann’s daughter and an eccentric composer, one Joseph Goodman, shortly after 9/11. The composer is working on a piece called Nobility of Spirit, and he maintains that that idea—whatever exactly it means—is somehow “the great ideal . . . the realization of true freedom,” “the incarnation of human dignity,” and even the way to “get beyond the war on terror.” A few months later the composer destroys the piece in a fit of depression and then dies. Mann’s daughter asks Riemen to “continue his work,” not in music but in words, and not long after dies herself. Because she has mentioned Goethe parenthetically, Riemen starts reading Goethe, and that leads him to Spinoza:

The essence of freedom, [Spinoza] teaches, is nothing more than dignity itself. Only those who know how to comply with the call to be human, only those who won’t allow themselves to be possessed by desire, wealth, power, or fear but instead manage to make their own that which is lastingly and truly good and allow freedom and truth to guide them—only they know the true meaning of freedom. . . . This is what Spinoza taught Goethe about true freedom. And this freedom—as exceptional as it is rare—this life’s ideal, is what the erudite poet called nobility of spirit.

However vaporous the eccentric composer’s attempts to define “nobility of spirit,” Riemen’s own, it seems, aren’t much solider. What exactly is “dignity itself” or “the call to be human” or “that which is lastingly and truly good”? One expects better from the paragraph purporting to define the book’s enigmatic title. The unfortunate consequence is that one finishes Nobility of Spirit without any understanding of what it is about, or of how its essays complete the composer’s project. The injection of the occasional wise present-tense generality (“You cannot plan the most important events in your life—they happen to you”; “Some conversations are unforgettable”) confirms our suspicion: we are reading a critic attempting to be hazily luminous.

There are worse problems with the book than haziness, though. Consider its final essay, in which Riemen seems to include the text of Socrates’ famous defense in Plato’s Apology. And why not? Is there any better exemplar of intellectual bravery than Socrates? But look closer, and you find that while some of the paragraphs are identical to Plato’s, an alarming number are not—are paraphrases at best and Riemen’s interpretations of Plato at worst, though enclosed within quotation marks. Or consider Riemen’s account—presented as historical fact—of the first meeting of Socrates and Plato, complete with dialogue. How many unfortunate readers will come away from Nobility of Spirit convinced that Socrates sent Plato off to fight for Athens, welcomed him on his return, denounced “that damned war,” and then commenced the instruction of his greatest pupil? The episode appears utterly invented; the nearest parallel that I have found is an unreliable anecdote in Aelian’s third-century Varia Historia in which precisely the opposite happens and Socrates persuades Plato not to become a soldier. But it is impossible to determine whether Riemen has concocted this new story himself or is quoting some other fabulist, since the book has no citations—this in tribute to the eccentric composer, who had proclaimed, “I hate footnotes!”

Such a cavalier attitude toward history would be troubling enough in an ordinary collection of essays. On Riemen, who depends heavily on the anecdote, it throws even more doubt. When he writes in his biographical sketch, for instance, that Mann’s wife and daughter decided not to disturb the author with the radio’s news of war in 1939, does he have evidence to back up the claim? When, in the essay about intellectuals, he describes in detail an October 1946 meeting in Paris among Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Manès Sperber—giving us their words, their gestures, even their thoughts—is he again indulging in invention? For that matter, why should we believe in the existence of the conveniently antibibliographic composer?

The only remotely plausible defense for this sort of thing is the postmodern. Perhaps we are wrong to insist so rigidly on the age-old distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Instead of pedantically separating historical fact from creative invention—a separation impossible anyway, since all history is historiography and intrinsically unreliable, on this view—perhaps we should embrace imprecision, which is at least honest in its abandonment of objective truth.

Does such a defense hold water? For answer, there’s no better place to turn than, again, Doctor Faustus, which deals with exactly this tendency of the modern intellectual to exchange humanistic scholarship for irrationality.

Mann’s monumental novel concerns a composer named Adrian Leverkühn who confronts a great artistic problem. In what Leverkühn calls “an age of destroyed conventions and the relaxing of all objective obligations,” how can one possibly create original art? Or, as another character astutely puts it, “Every composer of the better sort carries within himself a canon of the forbidden, the self-forbidding, which by degrees includes all the possibilities of tonality, in other words all traditional music.” The existing forms of the artistic canon are “forbidden” to the composer striving for originality, of course—but eventually that canon becomes impossibly broad. What to do, then, when not only classical precision but also Romantic abandon and even late Romantic dissonance have become old hat?

That astute character, it so happens, is the devil, who strikes a deal with Leverkühn, promising him “the archaic, the primeval, that which long since has not been tried.” He continues: “Not only will you break through the paralysing difficulties of the time—you will break through time itself, by which I mean the cultural epoch and its cult, and dare to be barbaric, twice barbaric indeed, because of coming after the humane.” Leverkühn has already anticipated something along these lines, telling his childhood friend Serenus Zeitblom—the humanist scholar who is also the book’s narrator—that current civilization lacks “many a colourful barbarism which altogether perfectly agreed with culture.” To restore culture, Leverkühn suggests, “we need a system-master . . . with enough genius to unite the old-established, the archaic, with the revolutionary.”

Archaic, barbaric: like so much of Doctor Faustus, these words apply not just to Leverkühn’s music but to his homeland. Not for nothing is the novel subtitled The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend: Leverkühn’s Germanness is emphasized because the musician’s experience throughout is an allegory for Germany’s before the first and second World Wars. When the devil promises Leverkühn that he will “break through time itself . . . and dare to be barbaric,” he is using the same terminology that Zeitblom uses to describe Germany’s imperial ambitions. “A new break-through seemed due,” he recalls bitterly. “We would become a dominating world power.” What resulted, of course, were “crudity, vulgarity, gangsterism, sadism, degradation, filthiness. . . . the outrageous contempt of reason, the vicious violation of the truth, the cheap, filthy backstairs mythology, the criminal degradation and confusion of standards.”

Part of Mann’s ambitious project is to identify the elements of German culture that led it to commit its barbaric crimes, and again he does so symbolically through Leverkühn’s biography. We become acquainted with the composer’s birthplace of Kaisersaschern, a town with a “distinctly mediaeval air” containing “a morbid excitement, a metaphysical epidemic latent since the last years of the Middle Ages.” We hear about the theology that Leverkühn studies, and also “the infiltration of theological thinking by irrational currents of philosophy, in whose realm, indeed, the non-theoretic, the vital, the will or instinct, in short the daemonic, have long since become the chief theme of theory.” We meet a fellow student of Leverkühn’s who deifies the idea of immature youth: “German youth, precisely as youth, represents the spirit of the people itself, the German spirit, which is young and filled with the future. . . . German deeds were always done out of a certain mighty immaturity.” And we read about the “nationalistic-Wagnerian-romantic forces of reaction,” which promulgate what another, more perceptive student calls “a myth of doubtful genuineness and not doubtful arrogance: namely, the national, with its structural romanticism of the warrior type, which is nothing but natural paganism with Christian trimmings.”

These elements and many more paint a horrifying picture of Germany in the early twentieth century, a land whose greatest thinkers, the Munich intellectuals included, worship at a cult of unreasoning violence—“outrageous contempt of reason” indeed. They have thrown rationality overboard, appalling the humanist narrator, who is a son of the Enlightenment. What Zeitblom writes about Leverkühn in another connection applies to German scholarship as well: “The proudest intellectuality stands in the most immediate relation of all to the animal, to naked instinct.”

Is Mann’s contention that deliberately irrational thinking can have dangerous consequences overwrought? Consider what Riemen’s own casual, presumably well-intentioned “violation of the truth” leads him to. Nobility of Spirit concludes with another apparent invention, a scene supposedly hallucinated by the Italian journalist Leone Ginzburg—again an example of intellectual bravery—before his execution by Nazis. The scene is a monologue by a mysterious man who was once a priest but is now a Nazi sympathizer. He says to Ginzburg:

Doesn’t it amaze you that a Catholic priest like myself is now wearing a swastika? Isn’t the Roman Catholic church the best institution to teach absolute obedience and the art of adaptation? . . . There aren’t that many substantive differences between Catholicism and Fascism. The Germans overdo it with their anti-Semitism. Judaism is not something that we have a problem with—I certainly don’t. On the contrary, I’ve always greatly admired your intellectual tradition and your sense of being the Chosen People. I recognize myself in that.

Are we to understand that, since these words are never rebutted, Riemen endorses them? Or that, since the hallucination wears a swastika, his hateful characterizations of Catholicism and Judaism as fascist are not Riemen’s own? Or what? There’s no way to tell through the narratological fog of the historical fiction, or fictional history, or whatever this postmodern genre is supposed to be.

None of this is to say that Riemen is the equivalent of the evil intellectuals he describes in his second essay. But those intellectuals exist today as surely as they did in Mann’s time, as surely opposed to peace, justice, prosperity, and simple rationality—and Riemen, perceptive though he is in his analysis of anti-Americanism, too often swims in their waters and is almost necessarily contaminated by them. For too long, too many European intellectuals have embraced deliberate irrationality. What hope can we hold out for them if their self-styled foe can write a book like this?

Benjamin A. Plotinsky is the managing editor of City Journal.

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