The Condition of Mediocrity

To be clear-sighted even through the mist of tears – even then to have to understand, to study, to observe and ironically discard what one has seen – even at moments when hands clasp and lips touch and eyes fail, blinded by emotion – it’s infamous…it’s contemptible and outrageous.

These words come from Thomas Mann’s ‘Tonio Kröger’ (1903). The story is about the impossible task of being both fully human and fully artist (not to mention being a bourgeois artist). For Kröger, contrary to the Romantics, the artist is inhuman, someone inflicted with the bane of an irremediable, calculating distance, a constant rationalising gaze. Even in the midst of great emotional upheaval, he cannot ever let himself go, he is always weighing up how to form the vital, chaotic formlessness of life. An artist is the living dead, incapable of giving himself over to the superficiality of life’s joyousness; he is a social outcast, even while surrounded by his fellow men:

And with the torment and the pride of such insight came loneliness; for he could not feel at ease among the innocent, among the light of heart and dark of understanding, and they shrank from the sign on his brow.

And yet, how he longs for life! How he longs to be just like those ‘dark of understanding’ who sense his secret alien nature! Indeed, a man has no right even to call himself an artist ‘if his heart knows no longing for innocence, simplicity and living warmth…the bliss of the commonplace!’ On the one hand, then, Kröger loathes the bourgeoisie for their superficiality, their philistinism and their mediocrity; but, on the other hand, he has no time for bohemian cultural elitists with their cold-hearted disdain for good old, down-to-earth bourgeois life. It is only at the end of the story that a precarious, just-about-liveable balance is struck: ‘my deepest and most secret love belongs to…the happy, the charming, the ordinary…In it there is longing, and sad envy, and just a touch of contempt, and a whole world of innocent delight.’

Sculpture by Jane McAdam Freud

The agonies of Tonio Kröger are profound, Mann’s presentation of them masterly. But now imagine this: Tonio Kröger never was and never will be a great artist. He develops this delicate balance, continues his life feeling like a marked man who can never truly fraternize with his fellows, he subdues his alienation long enough to write a novel, but this novel is average at best and he knows it. Imagine, in other words, if the crises of Tonio Kröger’s inner life could not be redeemed by artistic greatness. Would this not be an even greater agony, a far more ignoble condition?

This is the condition of mediocrity. And artistic mediocrity is only its mildest form. To share the essential loneliness of the great modern writer, the absolute alienation from all mankind, but never to sublimate this desolation into the glory of a great work of art: this is a terrible fate. But there is a worse one. Imagine the selfsame loneliness, the same alienation, the same desire for artistic glory, but add to that a desire for critical greatness. (Greatness, by the way, being that for which only the inhuman strain). Not only do you desire renown in Hades, but before you even get there you want to beckon the great shades, to dazzle them with the light of critical intensity in the hope of transforming the aesthetic into truth. But your voice falters, your gaze drops away into despondency, because the call to the shades must be knowing and deep and sure, and you are ignorant and shallow and doubting: you have all the desire of the giant with none of its capacity. The tombs of the glorious dead remain closed to mediocrity.

Edvard Munch, Melancolia

And now the inner circle: radical mediocrity. You will never be a great writer, you will never be a great critic (again, you know that greatness should not even be desirable!), and you will never be a revolutionary. You have the passion of a communist but you live in a suburb; you defend the tenets of Marx with only the vaguest of historical knowledge; you write average Marxist theory in the shadow of better men than you. And still you plod on.

And it is not even tragic! It cannot, by definition, quit the realm of the comical, because it is too mediocre! In a constant trail of self-deprecating caveats and deflationary anti-rhetoric, the Sisyphean daily toil trundles on! It is unstoppable, it is pathological and it is trivial, painfully trivial. To read and write (obsessively) about the most communal of human activities, and to be all the while stricken by non-illusions of grandeur which render you an outcast.

The way to life blocked by a fear of finally, wilfully succumbing to the very mediocrity which is nonetheless your fate; the way to art, philosophy and revolution blocked by averageness, reading too little too slowly and – ultimately – by history itself.

‘Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’


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