the subject

James Ensor, My portrait surrounded by masks.


Considerations on the book by Heinrich Mann

The romance the subject by Heinrich Mann is a text that follows the life of Diederich Hessling during the time of Wilhelmine Germany, that is, the time immediately preceding the beginning of the War of 1914. As the ideal subject of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the protagonist even cuts his mustache in imitation of the monarch, and, following in his father's footsteps as head of a factory, he exercises tyranny over employees in a way that he also imitates the last German emperor: "I am completely a liberal man",[I] says the boy in the novel at one point.

Diederich is a prototype of a petty-bourgeois attitude, as the emperor of that time was also historically understood. In this sense, the young man has the characteristic life of a well-heeled German at that time: he attended youth training clubs, was absorbed by a proud and anti-Semitic patriotism, and, finally, has an authoritarian personality.[ii]

Borrowing from a type of language derived from the great political debates in Europe at the end of the 1920th century, Heinrich Mann publishes his book (with some difficulty due to censorship) only after the German defeat in the War; however, it is noteworthy that his novel was viewed with horror during the 1930s and XNUMXs: it would again be censored and thrown into the fire, and its author would have his citizenship revoked by the Nazis.

This narrative perceives how there was a political system in Germany at the time in which undecided liberals watched the rise of this violent nationalism and capitalist monopoly; meanwhile, social democrats have little interest in social reforms, while yearning for government positions – the proletariat, on the other hand, does not achieve cohesion and is brutally persecuted by the violence of exploitation of labor and the Kaiser's troops, opening up in this way, to coercion and corruption.

It is in this way that the novel presents this protagonist who fears and diminishes himself before his peers and superiors as he exercises an authoritarian and violent power against those below him in the social hierarchy – the employees of his factory, his sister and his wife. mother, for example. Thus, Heinrich Mann greatly anticipates in his work some tendencies of the bourgeoisie that actively and passively participated in the rise of the Nazis during the Weimar Republic, perceptively observing how in the emperor's time a modern, industrial capitalist economy was combined with a restrictive morality. .

In this way, the figure of Diederich appears in this comic drama as a subject with caricatured, performative and affected traits – nothing very strange for a moment in which someone dressed in a yellow green suit was seen letting his own mother die to defend an ineffective remedy against worst pandemic in human history. William II is in fact the model of the bourgeois there, presenting himself in a histrionic, flashy way, all the while repressing revolted workers on horseback; something that we could read in a passage at the end of the first chapter of the novel: “The gentlemen who followed the emperor followed him with extreme determination, but the horses drove them through the people, as if all people were entrusted with a supporting role in supreme performance; and sometimes they scrutinized what was happening next door, the impression they made on the public. The Emperor, on the other hand, saw only himself and his performance. His features were petrified by deep seriousness, making his gaze gleam at the thousands he fascinated. He compared himself with them: the lord chosen by God with the revolted servants![iii]

Hessling's formation goes through all the processes of a constant internalization of the processes of coercion and naturalization of the hierarchy of class, gender and race. From an early age, the boy knows that he will inherit his father's paper factory, whom he admires with love and of whom he is terribly afraid; on the other hand, his mother and sister are objects of desire and contempt, as the narrator himself points out: “he took advantage of moments of affection, but in no way felt any esteem for his mother. Her resemblance to him would not allow it. After all, he had no esteem even for himself (…)”.[iv]

None of these notes are strange to a good reader of Freud, who is familiar with the essay contemporary with Heinrich Mann's novel: the Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1920); there, the Austrian thinker will point to phenomena of identification within the patriarchal structure so characteristic of our societies.

This model, which mixes a process of narcissistic identification, as well as movements to internalize structures of repression, is not, however, exclusive to family groups. It is argued in this essay by Freud that institutions such as the army and the Church produce similar phenomena. Later in time, we could remember how Michel Foucault would develop in his philosophical project – in an intense dialogue with psychoanalysis, appropriating it and radically transforming it – which structures of control and discipline are generalized in modern societies; something that is not foreign to the school, to which I could add that, in recent decades, it has become a kind of vanguard in disciplinary models that engender suffering and individualize it while forming these “flexible” subjects for the job market.

It is no wonder, then, that Diederich Hessling's experience of school is described with terror: “After all these oppressive forces to which he was subjugated; after enchanted frogs, the father, the beloved God, the ghost of the village and the police; (...) Diederich found himself under another more terrifying one, which devoured the whole man at once: the school”.[v]

The school is, finally, a special place with regard to the production of suffering, the apparatus of control, disciplinary forces in the worst sense. The hierarchical structure, the modes of surveillance and the drive to internalize the forms of exploitation of liberalism (and of neoliberalism more recently) have a privileged place in the modern school; whose model has changed very little in the last 200 years – use, as an example, the notorious novel The Athenaeum by Raul Pompeia.

Young Diederich “always remained resigned and submissive to severe teachers. He played tricks on the benevolent ones (…) ”and“ from below, discreetly but invisibly, it was allowed to observe the corpses and draw from this a learning that mitigated the condition itself ”[vi]. From this experience, the boy draws a considerable part of his attitude towards the sisters, exerting an oppressive force similar to those of “power holders”, as the narrator calls it.

This school whose form is structurally the same, in the last fifty years, at least, assumed this prominent position in the implementation of neoliberal ideology – especially in those particular ones – from “learning to learn” pedagogies (in an appropriation of Vygotsky’s experiences through the discourse of late capitalism) to the last vertical and technocratic imposition of the “new high school”.

It doesn't take long in a school, therefore, to realize that that space is indeed a place of doctrine. Despite this, it is far from the "communist panic" that many have about implementing anything linked to Paulo Freire's theory, the search for socialist emancipation, the self-government of communities, the radical equality of subjects - it is rather the doctrine of war of all against all, market competition, precariousness of knowledge and exclusion of criticism; it is, in short, a sinister mixture of Hobbesianism, Social Darwinism, and Friedrich Hayek's moral psychology.

The exams, the cameras, the diaries, the reports, the exact times to use the bathroom, the strict way of sitting and fixing chairs to the floor, the rankings of scores in the simulations – the entrance exam as the final horizon. This is the doctrine that seeks to internalize structures of individualization of suffering, dispute between equals, hierarchies of domination and exploitation; Quincas Borba would be proud of the disciples of Humanitism: To the winner, the potatoes!

With little time in a school (and perhaps a private school is even more symptomatic in this sense) one can realize that no revolution can pass without a radical change in this place.

* Guilherme Rodrigues He holds a PhD in Literary Theory from Unicamp's IEL.


Heinrich Mann. the subject. Translation: Sibele Paulino. São Paulo, Mundaréu, 2014, 448 pages.


[I] MANN, Heinrich. the subject, P. 125.

[ii] The social formation, education and description of the daily life of these young men from Wilhelmine Germany were well studied by Norbert Elias in his book The Germans: The Struggle for Power and the Evolution of Habitus in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth Centuries (

[iii] MANN, ibid. P. 68.

[iv] id. ibid. P. 21.

[v] id. ibid. P. 22.

[vi] id. ibid. P. 23.

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