Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Far out to sea the water’s as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass; but it’s very deep, deeper than any anchor can reach. Many church steeples would have to be piled up one above the other to reach from the bottom of the sea to the surface. Right down there live the sea people.
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid” (trans. R. P. Keigwin)
I begin by apologizing for my insufficiencies as a critic of Doctor Faustus: it suits a novel whose narrator endlessly apologizes to the reader for his own insufficiencies. He cites his ponderous bourgeois humanism that makes him unfit to compose a compelling narrative and his difficulty in writing at all about so personal a subject as the life and death of his best friend while his country—Nazi Germany in the last years of World War II—collapses around him.
My inadequacies in this case are much less dramatic: this 1947 classic is a novel about music and about German culture, and I lack expertise, or even at times basic knowledge, about both subjects. Luckily, Doctor Faustus is also about the necessity and impossibility of modern art, about modern art’s tortured relationship to ethics, politics, and metaphysics—and I have thought a great deal about these subjects, even if not as they pertain to the particular situation of the German composer of art music in the modernist period. What follows can’t claim to be a unified essay, only a few speculative ventures occasioned by this essayistic and discursive novel of ideas.
First, some preliminary information about the novel. Its plot, what there is of it, is shortly summarized: Mann casts the novel as a biography of the great composer Adrian Leverkühn, who lived from 1885 to 1940, written by his best friend since childhood, a humanist and teacher named Serenus Zeitblom. As mentioned, Zeitblom writes the manuscript during Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, and he consequently invites us to find in his story of a German culture hero the seeds of German culture’s catastrophic destiny.
What is Leverkühn’s story? Most problematically for a novelist, an artist’s life is not often outwardly exciting and doesn’t lend itself to a page-turner; artists make art, often sedentarily and in seclusion. Leverkühn is no different: the story of the novel is the story of his intellectual development, as he grows from a late-19th-century rural boyhood in the almost medieval town of Kaisersaschern to a youthful theology student to an avant-garde composer in adulthood in the 1920s, before his madness and premature death, presumably caused by syphilis.
The several outward crises of Leverkühn’s life are erotic, and are to a striking degree surmised rather than being verified by Zeitblom (for all of Nabokov’s hatred for what he took to be Mann’s lumbering Dostoevskean overinvestment in ideological fiction, Doctor Faustus is a novel of almost Nabokovian trickiness, about which more later). As a young man, Leverkühn deliberately contracts syphilis by coupling with a prostitute named Esmerelda; later, he becomes involved in a love quadrangle with a male violinist who is his friend and presumably lover and with two women in their social circle, an entanglement that ends, in a passage of shocking melodrama for this slowest of novels, in a public murder on a streetcar.
But Leverkühn’s real life is in his art, in his artistic progress toward a method that can lead music out of its 19th-century dead-end of Romantic subjectivity without merely jeering at that emotivism through the cynical device of parody. He achieves this paradoxical emancipation from freedom by inventing a severe formal procedure (the real-life 12-tone method of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg) that allows subjective expression precisely by placing it within an objective formal grid. He and Zeitblom argue about whether or not such a method can really be described as emancipating, and they do so in resonantly political terms:
“Freedom always has a propensity for dialectical reversal. It very quickly recognizes itself in restraint, finds fulfillment in subordinating itself to law, rule, coercion, system—finds fulflliment in them, but that does not mean it ceases to be freedom.”
“In your opinion, that is,” I said with a laugh. “As far as it can see! But in reality that is no longer freedom at all, no more than a dictatorship born of revolution is still freedom.”
“Are you so sure of that?” he asked.
To devise this most modern of systems, though, Leverkühn must traffic with the premodern and the inhuman. Hence his origins in the medieval town of Kaisersaschern and his theological studies, with their focus on the omnipresence of Satanic evil. And hence his self-infliction of syphilis, that progressive illness that ascends to the brain and which was once indissolubly linked to the artistic and philosophical avant-garde.
In fact, Mann, who received a teenaged Susan Sontag in his California exile, seemed almost unable to write without deploying illness as metaphor, a metaphor above all for artists’ necessarily Nietzschean dalliance with the Dionysian forces of nature’s primordial flux if their Apollonian images are to be sufficiently vital to command and console an audience. Doctor Faustus does for syphilis what Death in Venice does for cholera and what The Magic Mountain does for TB. (By the way, the limitations of this metaphor can be shown by recent scholarship’s recision of some high-profile syphilis diagnoses: for instance and to the best of my knowledge, neither Nietzsche nor Wilde are currently thought to have had the sexually-transmitted disease, as they once were.)
At the center of the novel, Zeitblom places Leverkühn’s secret manuscript, a record of his supposed conversation with the devil, who appears variously as a pimp, a music critic, and one of Leverkühn’s former professors, who had argued, in the manner of Goethe’s Faust, that good is produced out of evil. The devil contracts with Leverkühn to produce a type of music that will overcome the Hegelian end of art, but in the midst of their conversation, he in his marvelously punning and almost Joycean discourse (here I can only praise the resourceful translation of John E. Woods) likens the flagellum of the syphilis bacterium to medieval flagellants:
The proper planets met together in the house of the Scorpion, just as Master Dürer drew it for his medicinal broadsheet, and there arrived in German lands the small delicate folk, living corkscrews, our dear guests from the Indies, the flagellants—you prick up your ears, do you not? As if I spoke of the vagabonding guild of penitents, scourging their backs for their own and all mankind’s sins. But I mean the flagellates, the imperceptible, which have flails, like our pale Venus—the spirochaeta pallida, that is the true sort. But right you are, it sounds so snugly like the high Middle Age and its flagellum haereticorum fascinariorum.
In other words, everything outside the control of reason, from premodern religion to incurable illness, is at one and conduces to art. Modernism, as Guy Davenport used to emphasize, was revival of the archaic, a valorization of whatever was trampled by the self-congratulatory progress of bourgeois western European modernity, whether it take the form of Europe’s own past cultures—pre-Christian paganism, medieval Christianity, folklore—or the cultures of Africa or Asia or, more simply, the biological substrate of consciousness that modernity presumes to shackle within the bounds of reason and moderation. The devil defines hell as nothing other than extremism, the extremism to which both modern art and politics were driven in the early 20th century:
Its essence, or if you will will, its point is that it allows its denizens only the choice between extreme cold and extreme fire that could bring granite to melt—between those two conditions they flee yowling to and fro, for within each the other ever appears a heavenly balm, but is at once, and in the most hellish sense of the word, unbearable. The extremes of it must please you.
Politically, this poses a problem, the name of which for Mann is “Germany.” Because Germany’s longstanding resistance to what Zeitblom identifies as humanism, associated variously and sometimes contradictorily with the Catholic Church, the French Revolution, Enlightenment philosophy, and neoclassical aesthetics, arguably incubated the ultramodern archaism, the techno-irrationalism—in sum, the modernism—of the Nazis.
This theme comes out in the novel’s overtly political passages, as when Zeitblom begins frequenting a salon where the assembled intellectuals of the 1920s express the coming anti-humanism. The most political of them advocates “a post- and counterrevolutionary conservatism, an assault on bourgeois liberal values from the other side, not from before, but from after,” showing that fascism/modernism is not really conservatism, is in a sense beyond those French categories of left and right, is a heedless leap into the future-past outside of reason and progress where the feeling subject is reborn in a surrender to the cold and chthonic forces of the universe.
As for sexuality, the novel’s plot, if we can call it that, narrates the break-up of the bourgeois home and the nuclear family, themselves inventions of modern western reason. Mann gathers adultery, prostitution, and queerness under the sign of syphilis to produce a sexuality counter to the bourgeois standard of domesticity. As opposed to Zeitblom’s settled family life, Leverkühn and everyone in his circle come to a bad end through sex, and it is no coincidence that Leverkühn makes his pact with the devil over the body of a syphilitic sex worker, joining the “brothel-hood,” if you will (and perhaps you won’t), of modernist masculinity, like the Joyce of “Circe” and the Picasso of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
At the novel’s conclusion, the final sign of Leverkühn’s damnation comes with the death of his little nephew, Nepomuk (nicknamed “Echo”), from cerebral meningitis, the effects of which are likened to possession. Modernism be damned, Mann (or Zeitblom) slathers on the 19th-century treacle to convince us of the little boy’s angelic loveliness and to make us mourn his death, symbolically brought on by his proximity to his evil uncle. Leverkühn had invited a disease of the brain into his own life without understanding that its like would blast the innocent, in a grim echo indeed. Echo is portrayed with such schmaltz that even Little Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin would blush, and not only from the feverish effects of her own highly symbolical wasting disease. Just so we don’t miss the point, we are informed several times that Echo is half Swiss: Switzerland, that country of multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic, and republican Enlightenment, as against Germany’s tragic and endemic irrationalism.
So it appears that Doctor Faustus is, for all its dense and riddling disquisitions on modernism and music, a story with a very clear moral: Mann comes out for humanism, reason, moderation, and against modernism’s Faustian ambition and romance with the inhuman. On the other hand, who wants to read a tract? And does the novel not frequently raise the possibility of parody, to say nothing of irony? There is that Nabokovian trickiness I mentioned at the outset. Could so staid a narrator as Zeitblom, who is always telling us just how staid he is, just how “eerie” and “uncanny” he finds the story he is telling us, be unreliable? Yes: simply because he is always telling us we can trust him, we should suspect him.
Doctor Faustus is a novel narratively in the mode of Melville’s Moby-Dick, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby: all of these books feature narrators of self-proclaimed humanism and enlightenment who tell us about the grand catastrophes of other, very different men, “ungodly god-like men,” to borrow from Melville. Yet each of these books, Doctor Faustus no less than the others, carefully shows us the secret yearning, even the erotic longing, of its stolid narrator to be more like its tragic anti-hero.
The Catholic Zeitblom, for one thing, is not without his own fascist tendencies. Despite unctuously proclaiming his philo-Semitism in the opening pages, he caricatures and even at times maligns the novel’s Jewish characters (one of whom is the aforementioned advocate for “counterrevolutionary conservatism”). Likewise he defends monarchical absolutism in an otherwise inexplicable scene wherein he speaks in favor of “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, another obsessed aesthete.
But more importantly than these political slips, at the end of the book, Zeitblom quietly discloses the dark secret of his own text, the very novel we’re reading, which we had taken for a meandering and even slightly dull biography. He is ostensibly describing the structure of Leverkühn’s final composition, The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus:
This gigantic lamento…is, properly speaking, undynamic, lacking development and without drama, in much the same way as when a stone is cast into water the concentric circles that spread farther and farther, one around the other, are without drama and always the same. A single immense variation on lamentation…it expands in rings, each inexorably drawing the others after it: movements, grand variations, which correspond to textual units or chapters in the book and yet in and of themselves are are once again nothing but sequences of variations. (my ellipses)
But isn’t this a perfect description of Doctor Faustus? Is it not a novel with no plot, no narrative, no drama, no progress, just incident after incident, each of which, no matter how minor, contains in miniature the themes of the whole? Even when Zeitblom gives us a passage of seeming comic digression (Sterne, by the way, is one of Leverkühn’s favorite writers), he plays variations on the Faust theme. He describes the denizens of the boarding house where Leverkühn stays in Italy and is careful to tell us that of the two brothers who live there, one is an Enlightened rationalist and the other an unreasonable reactionary. Similarly, the novel’s erotic subplots, particularly those stories of the “fallen” sisters Inez and Clarissa Rodde, allegorize the tragic conflict between bourgeois moderation and Faustian extremity.
All of which is to say that neither author (Mann) nor narrator (Zeitblom) can condemn the tragic hero Leverkühn, since both have introduced his totalizing Satanic-fascist musical innovations into the art of the novel. And that is why this is a modernist novel, despite its superficial appearance of belated 19th-century realism. Leverkühn had with his final composition wanted to “revoke” the monument of Romanticism and progressivism, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, converting its heroic joy into tragic sorrow. Mann similarly revokes the progressive temporality of Goethe, the organicism that allows the endless striving of Faust or of the bildungsroman, this to achieve the archaic revival in the modern novel of tragedy, with its union of irreconcilables—individual will, communal need, universal fate—in a grand calamity that makes a lamenting concord of discord. On the other hand, it takes a clear-headed, rational, i.e., humanistic, reading of the novel to discover these paradoxes; in that sense, it promotes anti-fascist habits of mind to grasp its potentially fascist form.
This novel dramatizes, among other conflicts, religion vs. magic. Religion deals in dualism: body against soul, good against evil. Magic, by contrast, posits the union of opposites, as does art.
Bourgeois humanism is for its curriculum parasitic upon nature and art—those demonic forces it tries to subdue. For this reason, Mann is not only indicting Zeitblom for hypocrisy and complicity, which would put this novel in the realm of rational polemics, but also indicting humanity’s inherent inner conflict, our competing desires for mutually exclusive forms of the good, the true, and the beautiful, which is what makes this novel a tragedy. Didn’t Mann in The Magic Mountain refer to the human being as the “lord of counterpositions”? We don’t want Hitler, and we can’t live by bourgeois reason alone. Start with that concession of confusion and contradiction, as Mann so delicately does beneath the overt argument of his superficially ideological novel, and maybe we will get somewhere.
But I don’t want to end with yet another self-flagellation of the modern artist, as if we were the only people who ought to have guilty consciences in this guilty world. For Mann insists that science is as culpable as the artistic and philosophical avant-garde in fascist irrationalism. A very minor character in the novel is Dr. Unruhe,
a philosophical paleozoologist, whose writings linked in a most ingenious fashion the study of fossils and geological strata with a vindication and scientific confirmation of materials found in ancient sagas, so that by his theory—a sublimated Darwinism, if you will—all things that an advance humanity had long since ceased to believe became true and real again.
This fusion of archaic lore with modern science is a motif of the novel. The devil compares the syphilis bacterium to Andersen’s Faustian little mermaid, for instance; like the sexually-contracted spirochete winding its way from phallus to cerebellum, she (for love) ascends from water to earth to air. Leverkühn, who late in the novel tries to drown himself and early in the novel watches his father’s scientific experiments with liquids, has a fantasy, on the cusp of his greatest artistic achievements, in which he explores the black depths of the ocean and there encounters
the mad grotesqueries, organic nature’s secret faces: predatory mouths, shameless teeth, telescopic eyes; paper nautiluses, hatchetfishes with goggles aimed upward, heteropods, and sea butterflies up to six feet long. Even things that drift passively in the current, tentacled monsters of slime… (my ellipses)
These watery passages are to my mind the most prophetic in the novel. Such tentacular and oceanic metaphors, such fears of a fascist science and of the primordial slime it discloses, seem pressing in a way that avant-garde art no longer does.
If we ourselves are (and we very may well be) on the brink of a post-bourgeois, post-humanist millennium, piloted by hypercapitalist city-states overseen by gene-editors and artificial intelligence, then the most significant writer of the 20th century will prove not to have been the humanist modernist Mann but—as Alan Moore suggests in his recent and startlingly not-un-Doctor-Faustus-like graphic novel Providence—the gothic materialist H. P. Lovecraft. But Mann is a writer of sufficiently diabolical foresight to have incorporated that unsettling possibility into this most eerie and uncanny of great novels.
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!