This review is dedicated, in friendship and grateful memory, to the late Bob Zeidler, one of Amazon.com’s best and brightest customer reviewers. It is partly inspired by an exchange with Bob, whose comments hereon are sorely missed.
“Yes … we are lost. That is to say: the war is lost, but that means more than a lost military campaign, in fact it means that we are lost, lost is our substance and our soul, our faith and our history. It is over with Germany; … an unnamable collapse, economical, political, moral and spiritual, in short, all-encompassing, is becoming apparent, – I don’t want to have wished for what is looming, because it is despair, it is madness.”*
Thus, the narrator of Thomas Mann’s last completed and, I think, greatest novel sums up Germany’s fate after the barbarities of national-socialism. But this is no mere character speaking: This is Mann himself – the erstwhile self-proclaimed “Unpolitical Man,” condemned to watch the Nazi tyranny’s horrors from the distance of his Californian exile, taking up the mighty pen that had gained him his Literature Nobel Prize and, through the voice of a narrator named Dr. Serenus Zeitbloom (in itself, supremely ironic comment on Mann’s own circumstances) composing his final reckoning with the country he left when the Nazis came to power, and where he never returned to live, although he finally did leave the U.S. in 1952, driven out by McCarthyism.
According to his diaries, as early as 1904 Mann had the idea of using a composer’s temptation by the devil (and thus, updating the Faustian legend, the quintessential theme of Germany’s cultural history at least since the Middle Ages) to illustrate the corruption of art by evil. Seeing the country’s intoxication with the glorious promises of Hitler and his henchmen, seeing all of German society fall under the spell of evil, including the “Bildungsbürgertum,” the educated middle class considering itself guardians of Germany’s cultural tradition (and for whose acceptance the dark-haired merchant’s son without a university education struggled throughout his life, much as they bought his books), reviving that idea first conceived forty years earlier was a logical choice; now further inspired by the personalities of Arnold Schönberg, whom Mann met in exile and whose twelve-tone scale became that of his novel’s protagonist Adrian Leverkühn, and Friedrich Nietzsche, with whose writings and personal fate Mann had been fascinated early on. Philosophically and musically, the novel is also influenced by critical theorist Theodor Adorno, with whom Mann entertained an in-depth epistolary dialogue.
Blending together musical theory, the decline of humanist philosophy, the rise of fascism and the powers of black magic (most of which Mann had already explored in earlier works like “The Magic Mountain” and, very pointedly, in the 1930 short story “Mario and the Magician”), “Doctor Faustus” is thus simultaneously a comment on the political developments, a warning, an attempt to come to grips with Germany’s high-flying, yet so easily destructible philosophical and moral compass – and, masterfully construed though it is, a cry of despair in the face of utter madness. For while the novel is brimming with references to the better part of German (and European) cultural history, from the medieval “Faustus” tale to Goethe, Weber’s “Freischütz,” Martin Luther, Protestantism, and Thuringia and Saxony as focal points of all things German, Mann’s central point remains the parallel between his country’s fate and that of his novel’s protagonist, both ending in ruin and madness-induced stupor after their deal with the devil has run its evil course.
Unlike Goethe, who places his Faust’s temptation at his tragedy’s beginning, leaving no doubt about the event’s physical reality, Mann even narratively lifts Leverkühn’s temptation into the realm of allegory and imagination, by splitting it into two incidents, whose combined effect will only come to fruition in the novel’s final part. On neither occasion Zeitbloom, the narrator, is present; for both we thus have only Leverkühn’s own words. Yet, even the first account, a letter describing how the would-be composer is mischievously led to a brothel and falls under the spell of a prostitute, already intimates the evil to come, the venereal disease that will later constitute the outward cause of his madness; and not only does Leverkühn ask his friend to destroy that letter, he also closes it imploring him to pray for his soul.
Much later in the narrative – although indicating that it was actually written earlier; thus employing yet another level of (temporal) abstraction – Mann introduces Leverkühn’s transcript of his exchange with the devil; a dream-like sequence during which shape-shifting “Sammael,” in language hearkening back to Goethe and even the Middle Ages, promises Leverkühn nothing short of “the metamorphosis of a god”: that by his name a whole generation of “receptively healthy boys”* will swear, “those who thanks to [his] madness will no longer have to be mad themselves;”* and that, indeed, his name will live forever. Still, at this point we have already witnessed Leverkuehn explaining the foundations of his twelve-tone scale, only to be challenged by Zeitbloom’s question whether the strictness of his concept doesn’t deprive the composer of all freedom (which Leverkühn denies, rather seeing the composer as “bound by a self-imposed order, hence free”).* And when in an exchange laden with symbolism Zeitbloom then presses whether the formation of harmony wouldn’t be left to chance, Leverkühn’s response is, “Rather say: to constellation”* – thus squarely introducing, as his friend will quickly note, concepts of black magic, which in addition to the dialogue’s musical and political references again drive home Leverkühn’s exposure to the irrational and evil, long before the reader actually learns about his interview with the devil.
Doubtlessly among Mann’s most intimately personal works, “Doctor Faustus” is also among his most complex ones; and while hardly any of his writings make for a leisurely read, the sardonic “Felix Krull,” the near-humoristic “Royal Highness” and even his early masterpiece “Buddenbrooks” are foils to the seasoned master craftsman’s rapier that is drawn here. Demanding, certainly – but also highly recommended!
* Translation mine.