In Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel Dr Faustus, there’s a memorable exchange between the humanist narrator of the story, Serenus Zeitblom, and its antihumanist hero, Adrian Leverkühn. Adrian is fascinated by ‘the blackness of interstellar space whither for eternities no weakest sun-ray had penetrated, the eternally still and virgin night’. Serenus, fearing he is hearing something like Freud’s death drive-that instinct towards oblivion, the desire for a state of zero tension before or beyond consciousness-responds with a vigorous defence of life from a liberal humanist perspective:
Piety, reverence, intellectual decency, religious feeling are only possible about men and through men, and by limitation to the earthly and human. Their fruit should, can and will be a religiously tinged humanism, conditioned by feeling for the transcendental mystery of man, by the proud consciousness that he is no mere biological being, but with a decisive part of him belong [ing] to an intellectual and spiritual world; that to him the Absolute is given, the ideas of truth, of freedom, of justice; that upon him the duty is laid to approach the consummate. In this pathos, this obligation, this reverence of man for himself, is God; in a hundred milliards of Milky Ways I cannot find him.