Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as told by a Friend
The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of “Doctor Faustus”
Faust as Musician: A Study of Thomas Mann’s Novel “Doctor Faustus”
The career of Thomas Mann’s modern Faust is intended to illustrate the political, artistic, and religious dilemmas of the author’s time. Yet paradoxically, the story of a former divinity student who bargains his soul and body to become a “musician of genius” is set in the wrong historical era. And the book’s major flaw as fiction—counting as minor blemishes the discursiveness, and the imbalance between theory in the first half, story development and human variety in the second—may be attributed to conflicts between Mann’s symbolic and realistic intentions.
Pacts with devils in human form, complete with “cold winds” and changing guises, are more appropriate to the sixteenth century than to the twentieth. Not that similar bargains with “the forces of evil” are uncommon today, being in fact the rule rather than the exception, but the agencies with which the contemporary kind are negotiated have been non-personal. And, apart from the Mephistophelian contract, the primacy in the novel of the theme of “sin,” the importance of theology, and the space given to the subject of witchcraft belong more to the age of Martin Luther than to that of a “hero” dying in 1940.
Moreover, at the core of the book is the “German question,” Mann’s belief that the seeds of National Socialism existed long before Hitler, and the recommendation to reject “the myth of a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ Germany, the bad [being] at the same time also the good.” This postulate might have been presented to advantage in a more remote period; in any event, the portrait of a moderately “conscientious” German inside the Third Reich in 1943-1945 is totally unconvincing, though the same character, Serenus Zeitblom, narrator and spokesman for the author, is credible at other times.
Mann, in California, writing in Zeitblom’s name, is simply unable to arouse any sympathy for his fictional counterpart in the Germany of the latter part of the war. In a novelist so skilled at creating atmosphere and background, the failure to establish the sketchiest sense of what life must have been like in the collapsing Germany of 1945 is astonishing; Zeitblom’s complaints about the aerial destruction of German cities, his fears of retaliations from the Russians, and his “consternation” at the Allied landing in Sicily are all unreal. Nor does he mention any privations, or the presence of soldiers and movements of war matériel, or even the effects of casualties on the families of friends. Furthermore, the voice behind his reflections on the German soul is transparently that of Thomas Mann, who provides Zeitblom with what are too obviously hindsights about the conclusion of the war. Finally, what could be more farfetched than a middle-European provincial’s reference to occupied Paris as a “Luna Park” for New Order Germans?
Though Mann superbly evokes the main periods of the book—the decade in Munich before the 1914 war and, to a lesser extent, the 1920s, both of which he knew well—the 1930s are largely ignored. The reason for this is that the subject of Zeitblom’s biography, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, could not have functioned in Hitler’s Germany, and is therefore rendered non compos mentis during the entire decade. And since the tragic destinies of the Vaterland and of Leverkühn are bound together, neither-could Mann’s composer have joined all those German-refugee film-studio musicians in Hollywood. Because Leverkühn and Germany succumb concurrently to their respective insanities, and because the time gap between Leverkühn’s mental collapse (ca. 1930) and the inception of Zeitblom’s biography (1943) is not adequately covered, the plight of the artist confronted by Nazism does not arise and the novel is the poorer for having excluded it.
Then, too, music, the representative German art, as well as a symbolic and actual subject of the novel, might have been treated more advantageously in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. For Leverkühn, music originates in theology:
With Beethoven…music is a manifestation of the highest energy…almost the definition of God.
And in those earlier centuries not only did music derive inspiration from theology, but also its expressiveness was integral to its structure, which was itself theological. Jacobus Obrecht’s Sub tuum praesidium Mass, for instance, exploits various doctrinal correspondences—in its twelve imitations of the cantus firmus, and between the seven voices of the Agnus Dei and the seven Marian chants, to mention only two details from the quadrivial (arithmetical, geometrical, musical, astronomical) aspect of the composition’s inexhaustibly meaningful constructions. Mann, who was attracted to intellectual1 contrivances of the sort, would have found more challenge in this number mysticism than in Schoenberg’s comparatively simple “method of composing with twelve tones,” a method governing only pitch, while Obrecht’s Mass also includes the geometrization of tempo and rhythm. An objection to this translation to an earlier era would probably be that, following Schopenhauer’s definition of music as a nonconceptual art, one of Mann’s aims was to show that its mysterious power can be dangerous, as with Wagner; but Plato understood the potential subversiveness of music as well as did the nineteenth-century philosopher. Still another of Mann’s intentions was to pillory a society’s decadence in its music, but was this not also a purpose of the Council of Trent?
A further reason why an earlier century would have been preferable as a setting of Mann’s Faust story is the belief that disease as a path to illumination has less validity in the scientific age than in that of saints and stigmata; and though syphilis was one of the typological diseases of the Romantics—Nietzsche and Hugo Wolf were among Mann’s models—the death of a famous composer from it in 1940 seems somewhat anachronistic. Yet another argument for placing the narrative in an earlier century is Mann’s predilection for archaic language, which then, at least, would have been appropriate. Both Leverkühn and the Devil speak a twisted scriptural tongue which is not only a tiresome affectation but also a considerable impediment to intelligibility—and which, readers be warned, makes another appearance in that cornucopia of incest, The Holy Sinner.
Mann’s twentieth-century framework also leads to impossible complications when his fictional composer mingles with actual people living at the time. The idea is intriguing, and Mann’s choice of which ones to include displays a real familiarity with the musical life of the age; Otto Klemperer, for example, would have been the perfect conductor for the première of Leverkühn’s oratorio, Apocalypsis cum figuris, Maia de Strozzi-Pecic the ideal singer for his Lieder, and Paul Sacher quite obviously the outstanding musician with whom to deal in Switzerland. To a fanciful reader, the matching of these people with Leverkühn’s music might suggest something of its qualities.
But when Leverkühn attends the performance of Salomé in Graz in 1906, Mann does not mention that Mahler, Schoenberg, and Berg were there—naturally, for how could there be a great German composer who was not Mahler, not Schoenberg, and not Berg, or not Webern, not Pfitzner, and not Strauss? Leverkühn would either have to be a composite of all of these men, or he would have had to discover new musical territory unexplored by any of them. True, he does introduce experimental effects, including “howling glissandos,” but his pieces depend on borrowed features. Thus the instrumentation of two songs for voice and string quartet, as well as of another chamber work, recalls Schoenberg’s opus 10 and opus 29, and the “speaking choruses” suggest other Schoenberg pieces, though Mann had not actually heard them. The instrumentation and narrator-device in Leverkühn’s puppet play are borrowed from Histoire du Soldat, while some of the Apocalypsis threatens to sound like Theodor W. Adorno’s2 idea of Stravinsky:
the parody of the different musical styles…Tchaikovsky, music-hall, the syncopations and rhythmic somersaults of jazz….
But the impingement of the actual on the imaginary must have become unmanageable, and therefore Leverkühn’s public appearances had to be rare—surely a secondary reason why Mann crippled him with migraines as well as tertiary syphilis.
Besides the question of its misplacement in historical time, other features of Mann’s vast novel demand criticism beyond the scope of this article. For example, something should be said of the many characters who enter the story at a late date, and who, though absorbing in themselves, are irrelevant to the development of the central theme. Frau von Tolna, Leverkühn’s Madame von Meck, is one such, and so is the impresario Saul Fitelberg, “Représentant de nombreux artistes prominents,” whose analysis of career-making in Paris is diverting, but of whom Leverkuhn and the plot have no need. Marie Godeau, on the other hand, does advance the story, precipitating a break between Leverkühn and one of his two principal male attachments (both far closer to him than any woman); but Marie disappears as soon as this plot function has been accomplished, Mann apparently forgetting all about her even though at one time Leverkühn had intended to marry her.
Mann’s propensity for devoting separate chapters to the stories of each character may be responsible for the structural effect of a piling up of building blocks. Certainly this is true of his treatment of Leverkühn’s biography, which is divided into the family background chapter, the discovery of musical talent chapter, the understanding teacher chapter, the Italian sojourn chapter, and so forth. And it is no less true of the discourses—on osmosis; on the Devil’s casuistic argument that “in these irreligious times, in whom will you recognize theological existence if not in me?”; on the theory that the likeness of a certain two children to their father is greater than that to their mother “because her psychological participation when she conceived them was so slight”; on Kierkegaard’s notion that genius is ipso facto sinful, and on Dostoevsky’s that “the artist is the brother of the criminal and the madman”; and, above all, on Aristotle’s “The acts of the person acting are performed on the one previously disposed to suffer them,” this being part of the rationale for Leverkühn’s deliberately contracting syphilis as “a means provided by the Devil to induce creativity.”
As for the book’s digressions, Mann deflects criticism by having Zeitblom anticipate them, not only mentioning his tendency to ramble but often reminding himself that he is writing a biography and not a novel. (But surely novels and biographies—Marius the Epicurean, for one—can be the same thing!) And, finally, for a digression by this reviewer, as far as critical perspectives are concerned it might be interesting to examine Leverkühn, the remote and abstract, and Zeitblom, the humanistic, as extensions of their prototypes Naphta and Settembrini.
The Story of a Novel divulges nothing of the actual writing of Doctor Faustus but simply collects Mann’s comments on the people, the books, the journeys, the speech-making, the illnesses that otherwise occupied his time while he was working on it. He refers to one excursus into public activity as “a visit to the world of humanity,” as if the world of those who only stayed at home and wrote were not human. But in fact Mann did seem to consider artists, himself included, as somehow removed from “the world,” which in his case the evidence in The Story of a Novel refutes. Yet the book is of greater interest to readers of the novel than the twelve-year delay in publishing the English edition would indicate. It reveals some of Mann’s sources in literature, life, and even death—for the suicides of the fictional Clarissa and Inez were based on those of Mann’s sisters, although he identifies only one of them.
"Intellectual" in a literal, noetic sense, for not all of the levels of Obrecht's symbols are aurally or visually perceptible.↩
See the eminent Marxist critic's Philosophy of Modern Music, translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (Seabury Press, 1973). A prejudiced discussion of the book is included in this reviewer's Prejudices in Disguise. (Knopf, 1974).↩
“Intellectual” in a literal, noetic sense, for not all of the levels of Obrecht’s symbols are aurally or visually perceptible.↩
See the eminent Marxist critic’s Philosophy of Modern Music, translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (Seabury Press, 1973). A prejudiced discussion of the book is included in this reviewer’s Prejudices in Disguise. (Knopf, 1974).↩