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Thomas Mann, Epilogue to Buddenbrooks (1905)

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Was there anyone in the courtroom who, upon hearing these words of Mr. von Brocken, experienced something akin to indignation? I have received no sign of this. The gentleman whose task it would have been to answer him was the solicitor of the defendant, who, as a lawyer, must have felt that in this case “legitimate interests” were being damaged in the most frivolous fashion. He, however, limited himself to expressing regret that I had not been called as a witness, and did not defend me as someone who had been insulted. Is it any wonder that I myself speak now in my own defense? Because I am concerned about the opinion my fellow citizens have of me – and this is only natural.

If one wanted to christen in the name of Lieutenant Bilse all the books in which an author, being motivated by none other than artistic considerations, has portrayed contemporaries, living persons from his circle of acquaintances, then one would have to collect under this rubric whole libraries of works from world literature, among them those considered among the most enduring of all. To give one good example, when Goethe’s novel “Werther” appeared and immediately created a powerful, far-reaching effect, the individuals who had inspired the characters of Lotte and her husband had every reason to feel compromised. They did not run to the courts. They understood that it would have been small-minded to be resentful towards the author who, in his book, had endowed them with a life a thousand times more sublime, intensive, and enduring than the existence they led in middle-class reality – and they remained silent.

“Excellent!” say my fellow citizens. “Now he compares himself to Goethe!” God forbid, no. But Goethe was not always the genius far removed from all accusations of slander that he is today. He was also once a man of his day, contemporary, modern, was some young man from Frankfurt who “wrote,” who used his life to make fiction, to shape into books the impressions he gathered of the world and people around him, just like I do. And if you ask me with whom of the two I feel more related, with Goethe or with Bilse, then I answer you without any delusions of grandeur at all: rather with Goethe.

In answering the question, if one has a right, in a high moral sense, to allow oneself liberties, as I have allowed myself in “Buddenbrooks,” everything depends on whether one is, according to one’s being and certainly not according to one’s accomplishments, a kind of Goethe or a Bilse. Bilse was a flawed pamphleteer, for whom the word “pamphleteer” was already too good (since even to deserve this name, he would have to have had some talent), who expressed his pint-sized submissive spitefulness in poor sentences, and whose scandal had rendered him so little notoriety that in a few years not a soul would remember him. I would be pleased if my fellow citizens were to honor me by believing that my fate would take a different turn!

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