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

by Thomas Mann
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862

Doctor Faustus, like other novels by Thomas Mann, particularly his monumental Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), is enormously complex and built up of layer upon layer of interlocking references not only to the present but to the entire history of European civilization. However, it is constructed on a very simple premise, that of inversion. Throughout the book, things are turned upside-down, and readers again and again encounter, as in a magic mirror, their expectations being stood on their heads. Where hell is expected to be hot, it is instead described as freezing cold. The devil is no burning presence; instead, a chill emanates from him. Music, far from being the result of passionate inspiration, turns out to be the result of a highly cerebral, invented system of composition. Adrian Leverkühn’s art is the result not of a special blessing but of a common curse, syphilis. Finally, the narrator of this novel, which attempts to encapsulate the history of the German people while telling the tale of a heroic (or antiheroic) figure, turns out to be an insignificant professor in a provincial town.

No doubt the paradoxical nature of the plot of Doctor Faustus owes something to Mann’s own situation. He wrote this most German of books in Los Angeles, where he lived in exile, having been forced to leave his homeland after Adolf Hitler came to power. His home and possessions had been impounded, his honorary doctorate canceled, and his citizenship revoked. While his character Serenus Zeitblom (a name that roughly translates to “serene flower-of-the-time”) is tracing the progress of World War II from within Germany, Mann was following it from eight thousand miles away.

Certainly Mann composed his novel’s inversions quite deliberately and down to the smallest detail. Adrian’s final work, The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus, is modeled in part on Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (it even takes an hour and a quarter to perform, as does Beethoven’s symphony), but where the choral passages in Beethoven’s symphony are based on Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” Adrian’s last work is referred to as an “Ode to Sorrow.” Mann even has Adrian say that his Lamentation is a retraction of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Through Adrian, Mann challenges a number of ideas stemming back to the nineteenth century when Beethoven wrote his symphony. What Mann wants to question, he has Adrian deny: That a nation-state is good, that music is a force for good, that great artists are agents of good, that history teaches that humanity is moving upward into the light and that this progression in inevitable and must succeed. Long before the end of this novel, all such assumptions have become extremely dubious.

However, Romanticism always had within itself this darker, despairing strain, the essential doubt that existence is worthwhile. Doctor Faustus, to be truly anti- or un-Romantic, would have had to dispense with its tragic hero, its vast battlefields, its deal with the devil, and its focus on individual suffering and joy, which confers value and meaning on life even though Adrian might wish to deny that life offers these. A truer opposite to the Romantic spirit in literature would be writing that de-emphasized the role of the individual in shaping history and ignored the significance of nations and of liberty, equality, and fraternity as human rights.

It is precisely because Mann’s beliefs are those Romantic ideals that he was impelled to write this novel, for he saw these ideals endangered on every side during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The enemy of human beings is everywhere present in Mann’s world, not least in the movement in art known as modernism. Mann’s description of Adrian’s system of composition was based on information Mann received from a mutual acquaintance about Arnold Schoenberg’s so-called method of composing with twelve tones related only to one another. Mann considered this method to be highly constructivist and to a considerable extent anti-inspirational and repressive of certain elements in art that he believed essentially human. Upon this basis, Mann drew connections from fascism to modernism and from both of these to disease and to the devil.

The strength of the novel derives from the interest Mann gives to these questions. Ultimately, evil may be simply more interesting than good, because it raises more forcefully the questions of free will and determinism, choice and fate. Faustian pacts with the devil, a child dying in agony from meningitis, a great composer deliberately contracting a venereal disease from a prostitute—these can make compelling literature. Mann has scruples, moral misgivings, and a very real terror of the world gone mad, but he satirizes these in the hypocritical mealy-mouthed figure of the narrator. The readers’ sympathies go rather with the man who has lost his soul to accomplish something indestructible, no matter what that something, than to the ordinary narrator. Adrian is a highly cultured, civilized man committed to the symbolic rather than the actual acting-out of his destructive impulses. Compared to Zeitblom, however, he is a monster, a vehicle for forces both natural and supernatural, and as such, a riveting subject for a book.

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