Sunday, February 12, 2012

"We are lost."

"Which is to say: The war is lost, and that means more than a lost campaign, it means that we are in fact lost - lost, our cause and soul, our faith and our history. Germany is done for, or will be done for. An unutterable collapse - economic, political, moral, and spiritual - in short, an all-embracing collapse looms ahead. Not that I would have wished for what threatens us, for it is despair, it is madness." (186)

Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, and essayist. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 and married a Jewish woman who later converted to his Lutheran faith. When Hitler assumed power in 1933 the family emigrated to Switzerland and then to the United States in 1939. Mann became a naturalized American citizen and taught at Princeton. During World War II he produced a series of anti-Nazi radio broadcasts entitled "Deutsche Hörer!" ("German Listeners!") which were recorded in the US and then sent to Great Britain, where they were transmitted by the BBC. Mann would never again live in Germany, although after the war he often traveled there. He died in Zurich.

Doktor Faustus (Doctor Faustus, translated by John E. Woods) was begun in 1943 and published 1947. As the title suggests, it is a reworking of the German legend of Faust, an ambitious scholar who makes a deal with the devil. In negotiations with the devil's representative Mephistopheles, Faust agrees to trade his soul for a twenty-four year period of unlimited knowledge. Although some adaptations have Faust saved through the grace of God, in the original story he is corrupted beyond redemption and ultimately dragged to Hell before horrified onlookers. The tragic tale of ambition, temptation, power, and damnation is widely accepted as an allegory for the surrender of moral integrity in exchange for worldly prestige.

Mann's version is framed as the biography of the late composer Adrian Leverkühn, as written by his friend, an elderly schoolteacher named Serenus Zeitblom, while World War II rages outside and Germany's final catastrophe looms closer. Zeitblom had known Leverkühn since their boyhood days and remained by his side until Leverkühn's mental collapse in 1930 and death a decade later. Given Leverkühn's solitary nature, the bulk of the story is concerned with his artistic and intellectual evolution, from the comforting traditions of nineteenth century humanism, to the dizzying freedom of modernism, and finally to a nihilism seeking to redeem itself in new truths. The lectures of musicologist Wendell Kretzschmar, heard by Leverkühn and Zeitblom as adolescents, initially establish the history of Western music - and by extension, Western culture - as possessing of a frame of reference in God and the church. The destiny of art, however, was a gradual "emancipation from the cult . . . which on the one hand proved quite beneficial, on the other gloomily onerous" (91). Art for art's sake is, socially speaking, potentially dangerously unrestrained.

Leverkühn initially studies theology but eventually abandons it for a career in music. Lacking the cultural anchors enjoyed by previous generations, his early compositions are self-aware parodies that mock Romantic conventions. An overwrought tale of epic love and chivalry, for example, can no longer be composed with sincerity as audiences have seen such tales all too often and now recognize them as pure stylization. Art has lost its legitimacy as representative of life and taken refuge in irony. As Zeitblom explains:
It is indeed work, artistic labor for the purpose of illusion - and now the question arises whether, given the current state of our consciousness, our comprehension, and our sense of truth, the game is still permissible, still intellectually possible, can still be taken seriously; whether the work as such, as a self-sufficient and harmonically self-contained structure, still stands in a legitimate relation to our problematical social condition, with its total insecurity and lack of harmony; whether all illusion, even the most beautiful, and especially the most beautiful, has not become a lie today. (192)
Leverkühn subsequently longs for a strong personality to establish a new order out of fragmented modernism.
"You need only recall," he said, "how I defended the childish tyranny of [Beissel's] master and servant against your accusation of silly rationalism. What instinctively pleased me about it was itself something instinctive and naively consistent with the spirit of music; the will, which it suggested in its own comical way, to establish something like a strict style. We may well need someone like him, though on a less childish level, today, just as badly as his flock needed him back then - we could use a master of system, a schoolmaster of objectivity and organization, with enough genius to combine the elements of restoration, indeed of the archaic, with revolution. . . ."

He had to laugh. (202)
Shortly afterwards Leverkühn has an encounter with a demonic figure, if we are to believe a document he left behind that Zeitblom provides in its entirety. It purports to be Leverkühn's transcription of a dialogue between himself and a Mephistopheles type, who is either real or an imaginary personification of Leverkühn's thoughts on art and morality.
He (without annoyance): "So far, so good. Surely you are in fundamental agreement with me that it can be termed neither sentimental nor malicious if one acknowledges the facts of one's world and time. Certain things are no longer possible. The illusion of emotions as a compositional work of art, music's self-indulgent illusion, has itself become impossible and cannot be maintained - the which has long since consisted of inserting preexisting, formulaic, and dispirited elements as if they were the inviolable necessity of this single occurrence. Or put it the other way round: The special occurrence assumes an air as if it were identical with the preexisting, familiar formula. for four hundred years all great music found contentment in pretending such unity was achieved without a breach, took pleasure in conventional universal legitimation, which it endeavors to confuse with its own concerns. My friend, it will work no more. Criticism of ornament, of convention, of abstract generality - they are all one and the same. What falls prey to criticism is the outward show of the bourgeois work of art, an illusion in which music takes part, though it produces no external image. . . The claim to presume the general as harmonically contained within the particular is a self-contradiction. It is all up with conventions once considered prerequisite and compulsory, the guarantors of the game's freedom" (256-257)
Mephistopheles offers him twenty-four years of musical greatness in exchange for Leverkühn's renouncement of love. It is revealed that the prostitute Esmeralda with whom Leverkühn had had a one-night stand had given him syphilis. Its slowly progressing madness promises to grant Leverkühn untold-of heights of creative inspiration even as it ruins him physically as well as mentally. Settling on a farm outside Munich, Leverkühn takes up with a small group of intellectuals, most of whom (with the exception of Zeitblom) eventually meet tragic and untimely deaths. The affluent but empty lifestyle of Ines Rodde, for instance, who meets her end through morphine and jealousy, illustrates the spiritual vacuity of the German bourgeoisie. Thus the original circle is slowly supplanted by such figures as Georg Vogler and Dr. Holzschuher who long for a new age of disciplined harshness and ironclad ideology to arise from the softness and decadence they perceive as the fruits of unrestrained freedom.

Between periods of blinding migraines and illness, Leverkühn composes several daring and avant-garde works such as the opera Apocalypse, which he begins in 1919 shortly after Germany's defeat in the Great War. He speaks to Zeitblom of the need to unite art and the people:
". . . But what we call the refining of the complicated into the simple is ultimately the same thing as regaining vitality and the power of feeling. Whoever might be able to achieve the - how would you put it? . . . the breakthrough, you'd say, whoever might achieve the breakthrough out of intellectual coldness into a risk-filled world of new feeling, that person would be called art's redeemer. Redemption, . . . a Romantic word; and a word that harmonists love, shoptalk for the bliss of harmonic music's resolved cadences. Funny, isn't it, how for a long time music saw itself as a means of redemption, and all the while, like all art, it needed redemption, that is, needed to be redeemed from a solemn isolation that was the fruit of culture's emancipation, of the elation of culture to ersatz religion - needed to be redeemed, from being left along with a cultured elite, known as the 'audience,' which will soon no longer exist, which already no longer exists, so that art will soon be all alone, alone to fade away and die, unless, that is, it should find a way to the volk, or to put it un-Romantically, to human beings?" (338-339)
A central tenet of Doctor Faustus, Mann would later say, is the mistake of intellectuals such as himself and his avatar Selenius Zeitblom to regard art and society as separate spheres, even after the First World War aptly demonstrated the ability of war to unite nations and lay aside old rules in favor of patriotic redemption.
If war is felt to be, so to speak, with more or less clarity, a universal ordeal, in which each individual - and each individual nation - must do what he must do and be ready to atone with his blood for the frailties and sins of the epoch, including his own, if war presents itself to the emotions as a sacrificial rite by which the old Adam is laid aside so that a new, higher life may be secured in unity, then quotidian morality is thereby superseded and falls silent before what is extraordinary. (317)
The brief glory, degeneration, and downfall of Leverkühn mirrors that of Germany itself. The national devil was, of course, Hitler, who promised a defeated and directionless society a new beginning and united all aspects of life - including art - under the banner of his seductive gospel of the Thousand-Year Reich. In the seconds leading up to his collapse Leverkühn laments the confused, wandering spirit of the age that turns to the Devil, figuratively speaking, as the only alternative to a life of uncertain freedom.
"Item, my desperate heart did trifle it. Had indeed a good fleet brain and gifts granted me from on high, which I could have used in all honesty and modesty, but felt only too well: It is an age when no work is to be done in pious, sober fashion and by proper means, and art has grown impossible sans the Devil's aid and hellish fire beneath the kettle. . . . Yes, ah yes, beloved fellows, that art is stuck fast and grown too difficult and God's poor man in his distress no longer knows up from down, that is surely the guilt of the age. But should a man make the Devil his guest in order thereby to go beyond and break through, he indicts his soul and hangs the guilt of the age around his own neck, so that he be damned. For it is said: Be sober, be vigilent [sic]! But that is not the business of some, and rather than wisely to attend to what is needful one earth, that it might be there better, and prudently to act that among men such order be stablished that may again prepare lively soil and honest accommodation for the beautiful work, man would prefer to play the truant and break out into hellish drunkenness, thus giving his soul to it and ending upon the shambles." (523-524)
It is easy to see Mann speaking through Zeitblom and exploring his own grief and anger at his homeland's apocalyptic self-destruction. Doctor Faustus is very much a metafictional novel, with Zeitblom/Mann discussing the process and form of the work itself in the context of the current global conflict. A problem I have often had with frame narratives is the first-person narrator's apparent ability to reconstruct entire conversations from memory; here, however, Zeitblom seems to be using the dialogue to discuss various areas of German intellectual thought in the decades leading to the rise of the Nazi party. The characters' highly structured, organized sentences simply do not feel like natural speech, and it is easy to accept them as Zeitblom's subjective reinterpretations of past conversations in light of his present emotional state. This further links the fate of Leverkühn to that of Germany as a whole and establishes Doctor Faustus as, first and foremost, Mann's own literary means of coming to terms with Germany's spiritual and literal ruin.

The original translator was H.T. Lowe-Porter, who used Middle English to correspond to the passages originally written in Early New High German, a task she described as quite difficult. Mann himself acknowledges this through Zeitblom's thoughts on the publication of his completed work: ". . . I have now and then considered ways and means for having these pages reach America, so that for now at least they could be presented to people there in English translation. . . . Granted, the thought that in terms of content my book would surely arouse puzzlement in that cultural sphere is coupled with an anxious concern that its translation into English, at least in certain of its all too radically German passages, would prove an impossibility" (528-529). John Woods's second translation, which came out in 1997, is the one I read and it does not attempt to mirror the archaic German. I don't speak German and nor did I read Lowe-Porter's version; nevertheless I did not feel that anything was lacking and found the highly stylized speech of Mephistopheles and occasionally Leverkühn to be extremely well-done and a joy to read.

Other works by Thomas Mann I have read are the short stories "Death in Venice," "The Blood of the Walsungs," and "Tristan."




Kamelot, "March of Mephisto" (The Black Halo)

5 comments:

Caitlin Martin said...

I like this book. I also like the opera. In fact, I think the whole story has all kinds of metaphorical and literal appeal.

Have you read Marlowe's play? You really should. If only for this hysterical moment in it when Mephistopheles appears with a pair of black standard poodles. Apparently they were considered demonic at the time, but I fell out laughing over this. In any event, the play is wonderful.

Parrish Lantern said...

This is a great post about a great writer thanks, PS. have you read any Herman Hesse, would be interested in what you think.

E. L. Fay said...

Caitlin: Yes, I read Marlow's play in college and was actually really disappointed. Faust gets his knowledge but only does the most ridiculous, childish things with it! I was hoping for something more epic.

Parrish. YES. I have indeed read Hermann Hesse. I have read Demian, Steppenwolf, and The Journey to the East. Loved them all and would definitely like to read more Hesse in the future.

Richard said...

I don't know any German, E.L. Fay, but I believe Der Zauberberg that you have listed in your post is actually the title of Magic Mountain. Anyway, I really enjoyed Doctor Faustus and found Zeitblom's narration intellectually appealing. That chapter featuring the debate with the devil figure, though? Whoa. Talk about hardcore! I hope to get to Mann's first novel or Magic Mountain later this year; this post helped whet my appetite, so thanks. :D

E. L. Fay said...

Woops. Fixed that. Pretty dumb mistake too, considering German for "doctor" is doktor and the name isn't any different.

"Hardcore" is right. The devil chapter made me feel REALLY bad for the translators. That the English is so flawless speaks volumes about John Woods's skill.

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