Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend

by Thomas Mann
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1465

Doctor Faustus is arguably one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century in any language. Acclaimed as a masterpiece at the time of its original publication, Doctor Faustus has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly articles and books.

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The story centers on the life and career of Adrian Leverkühn, a preternaturally gifted man who is born into the Germany of the Second Reich in the generation following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The novel follows Leverkühn’s life and career until his death in 1943. Leverkühn is born into a provincial middle-class farming family. His parents are conventional, but his father does harbor some eccentric scientific interests. During his childhood, Leverkühn becomes lifelong best friends with Serenus Zeitblom, who serves as the novel’s putative narrator. Originally attracted to both mathematics and music, Leverkühn goes to college to study theology, a course of study that he eventually abandons in favor of music. Leverkühn’s prowess as a composer advances rapidly, but it is not until after he contracts syphilis from a prostitute (his only sexual experience) that his music becomes totally original and groundbreaking. As the syphilis proceeds to destroy Leverkühn’s physical and mental states, his creativity as a composer increases. After having achieved the first fruits of international success, Leverkühn suffers a complete nervous and mental breakdown and spends the last ten years of his life as an invalid.

The most significant aspect of the novel is the author’s use of the Faust legend, the age-old story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for wealth, power, and sexual prowess. Although the only situation in the novel overtly similar to the traditional Faust story is the imaginary dialogue between Leverkühn and the Devil, which occurs in chapter 25, the Faust legend is a very powerful presence in Mann’s novel. Central to the Faust legend is the contract, the quid pro quo, between the Devil and Faust. The Faustian contract for Leverkühn involves his contracting syphilis from a prostitute. At the price of the loss of his physical and mental health, the syphilis unleashes untold powers of creativity within Leverkühn. The syphilis from which he suffers is, in turn, a symbol of the “disease” of extreme nationalism and ethnic chauvinism that eventually led the Germans to embrace Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In both cases—Leverkühn’s contraction of syphilis and the coming to power of Hitler—Mann makes it clear that the parties involved have entered into their “agreements” by their own volition, just as the original Dr. Faust entered into his demoniac pact of his own free will. Significantly, Leverkühn’s final composition of his creative career is a cantata titled “The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus.”

As in The Magic Mountain, Mann uses physical disease as a symbol for spiritual and cultural decline. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, syphilis was an incurable disease with a mortality rate approaching one hundred percent. Its symptoms could be mitigated and temporarily halted, but the disease was inevitable in its effects until the discovery of penicillin. Therefore, the selection of syphilis as a symptom of spiritual and cultural decline was significant because the disease was irreversible. Mann uses syphilis symbolically to suggest the inevitability of the decline of German civilization.

Mann uses Leverkühn’s life to parallel events occurring simultaneously in German politics and society. Leverkühn’s lifetime roughly approximates that of Hitler, the implication of which is that the same historical forces that brought the Nazis to the fore had a similar effect on Leverkühn’s art. Leverkühn’s final physical and mental collapse occurs in 1933, the year in which the Nazis came to power in Germany. Leverkühn dies in 1943, a year in which the war in Europe turned decidedly against the Axis Powers, leading to their eventual defeat.

The selection of a composer as the symbol of Germany’s moral and cultural decline is significant in that music is generally regarded as the most German of the arts. One composer, Richard Wagner, held a particular fascination for both Mann and Hitler. Wagner’s operas based on Teutonic myths were a great enthusiasm of Hitler’s, as were Wagner’s anti-Semitic racial views, as expressed in the composer’s book-length diatribe, Das Judentum in der Musik (1869; Jewry in music). Mann had an ambivalent attitude toward Wagner; he greatly admired the composer’s music but was repelled by the man himself. It was Mann’s essay “The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner” that led to Mann’s public denunciation and eventual exile to America. In a real sense, then, music and politics were intricately related in the nightmare of events occurring in Nazi Germany.

Adrian Leverkühn’s daimon, the catalyst whose function it is to see that the protagonist’s fate is fulfilled, appears in many guises, but perhaps never more significantly than in the being of Wendell Kretzschmar, the American expatriate music master and Leverkühn’s only real teacher of composition. Kretzschmar’s significance as a daimon extends not only to Leverkühn’s choice of a career as a composer—it is Kretzschmar who ultimately supplies Leverkühn with the justification to abandon theological studies and return to music—but also to the course that Leverkühn’s musical career will follow.

Leverkühn’s years of theological study at the University of Halle cause him to be influenced by several versions of his daimon. Professor Kolonat Nonnenmacher instructs Leverkühn in Pythagorean philosophy and reinforces Leverkühn’s long-held fascination with an ordered cosmos, particularly one susceptible to mathematical reduction. Nonnenmacher’s lectures also deal with Aristotelian philosophy and stress the philosopher’s views on the inherent drive to the fulfillment of organic forms—in other words, the urge toward the unfolding of destiny. These lectures have a profound impact on Leverkühn, who comes to the realization that his personal destiny is not necessarily of his own making.

Leverkühn’s daimon finds a different and more subtle version in the form of Ehrenfried Kumpf, Mann’s caricature of Martin Luther. Kumpf’s theology rejects humanism and reason and embraces a rather lusty appreciation of life, including its sensual pleasures, of which music is but one facet. Although Kumpf is a minor figure in the novel, his influence is long-lasting on Leverkühn, who adopts the former’s archaic German phraseology and syntax and who eventually abandons the rationality and “coldness” of theology for the “warmth” of music.

Of all Leverkühn’s professors at Halle, none leaves a more permanent impression and is more overtly a manifestation of Leverkühn’s daimon than Eberhard Schleppfuss, the mysterious theologian whose very difficult lectures combine the tenets of Christianity with a blatant Manichaeanism. Schleppfuss views evil as a necessary concomitant to good and posits a sinister interpretation of the nature of creativity.

Leverkühn’s involvement with music is made permanent, however, only after the liaison with the prostitute Esmeralda, which, interestingly enough, occurs after Leverkühn has witnessed the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (based on Oscar Wilde’s visionary Decadent drama). This liaison is a curious phenomenon in that neither lust nor intellectual curiosity appears to be its root cause. In many ways, Leverkühn is as irresistibly drawn to the prostitute Esmeralda as the symbolic butterfly hetaera esmeralda of chapter 2 is susceptible to visual or olfactory stimuli. There is a certain inevitability in both cases in which moral laws and the individual will are transcended by reflex actions firmly based in the instinctive domain. Additionally, Leverkühn’s brief sexual encounter permits the appearance in rapid succession of two other manifestations of his daimon, namely Dr. Erasmi and Dr. Zimbalist, both of whom are thwarted from treating Leverkühn’s syphilis in its incipient stage.

Leverkühn’s fall is akin to the fall of Adam; both are terrible yet necessary for the evolution of the human condition. One can no more imagine a Christian view of history without Adam’s transgression than a continuation of musical evolution beyond Wagner without the imposition of a seminal figure such as Leverkühn. The connection between Leverkühn and Adam is further strengthened by the fact that one of Leverkühn’s first mature works is a setting of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree,” with its references to the poisoned fruit and the serpent who despoils an altar. In the end, however, as Mann always makes clear in his writings, untempered creativity ultimately consumes its creator. All knowledge, all fruits of artistic genius carry with them a terrible price in the imaginary world of Mann’s fiction.

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