Monday, March 23, 2015

Sam Reads: Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann

"Sam Reads" will be a series of reflections on books I've recently read. For my own record and memory, I often jot down any impressions or interesting things from a book or my experience reading it. As I'm spending time writing these already and there was no good reason I could think of not to document them here to share with any that might care to read. This will not be a plot outline, contains no spoilers, and will not ruin the book in any way if one so chooses to read it in the future, which I would recommend to all.

This novel by the 1929 Nobel Prize winner came to me free of charge. I acquired it, along with many others, from my school library's end of year discard pile. It sat on my bookshelf for the better part of a year before it caught my eye one day last month while I was looking for something to read. I picked it from the piles initially because I enjoyed The Magic Mountain and had been wanting to read more Mann. I have always been intrigued by the legend of Faust as well, so I was excited to read a recent German master's adaptation of the folk story into a more modern era.

The subject of the book is a young virtuoso named Adrian Leverkühn. The narrator is a childhood friend who relates the story from the first person. He is writing during the Second World War about events that took place just before, during WWI, and in the following interwar period. At the time of the telling, our narrator, Serenus Zeitblom is an old man looking on as Germany ecstatically marches down the path to its destruction. He watches as his sons run off to join the army powerless to utter any protest. He knows these atrocities against humanity will have to be paid for at some point.

Doctor Faustus is a novel jammed pack with ideas. The narrator does not just tell us what he and the other characters were doing, but what they were talking about and thinking, as well. Mann frequently uses lectures or discussions between characters to introduce theories or thoughts that appear unrelated to the plot, but advance and support the themes and motifs of the story. There is a lot of analysis of music and musical theory that goes way over my head; though I did like the idea of music being a blend of the mathematical, analytical side of the brain and the creative, inspired, poetic side, and thus the most human of arts. A song does require some logical order or pattern, but is cold and empty without the individual pouring their soul into its creation.

Then there was the discussion by the conservative gentlemen's table of Sorel's theory of mankind naturally tending toward a totalitarian government, a popular belief during the defeatist years between the wars, and a chilling Hitler harbinger during the democracy "experiment," as they dub it, in Deutschland. I disagree with the position, but what these reactionary scholars predicted about the future of democracy is unfortunately prophetic. In the future democracies, parliaments or representative bodies will not be sufficient to keep the country running, and "in its stead the masses would have in the future to be provided with mythical fictions, devised like primitive battle-cries, to release and activate political energies," so Mann paraphrases Sorel. No matter what your political views are, you can probably see some truth in there somewhere.

There are literally dozens of such digressions, from whether art should strive to be popular with the common folk and whether popularity was an artistic merit or demerit, to what Christian doctrine applied politically as a socialist society would look like, but we need to talk a little bit about our anti-hero, Maestro Adrian. His deal with the devil is not a handshake and brimstone or Robert Johnson at the crossroads. His pact is sealed when he intentionally contracts syphilis from a prostitute, his haetera esmerelda, or poisonous butterfly. He was already a prodigy at this point, but his desire to be a great composer overpowers all else. He sacrifices his long term health in order to push the bounds of his creativity to the very brink of madness, though this is not just a physical phenomenon, as it becomes clear later that he intended to invoke the demonic with this act.

It is tempting to think that, because this is a more modern and less fantastic adaptation of the Faustian story, it is all a delusion created by his progressively maddening state. And yet, there are many aspects of the story that this theory would not explain. The one thing striking to me is that Leverkühn receives only artistic insight and the power to complete it out of the bargain. Wealth, love, even widespread fame and recognition during his time are all denied to him. At one point, he talks about how true genius and a genuine breakthrough out of the contemporary conventions requires a knowledge and embracing on not just the light, but the dark side too.

So, I'm getting close to end of book, and I realize that I've skipped a page. I tried to flip back, but when I look closer, the pages were bound together in a single sheet. Several pages near the end of the book were never cut apart and are stuck together in this way. That can only mean that no one has ever read this far into the book and noticed. Then I look at the title page. It was printed in 1975. I check the old catalog card in the back, and it had never been checked out! The book was was in brand new condition. It had been sitting on shelf neglected for 40 years waiting for me. I thought this was a little sad. Wasn't there one student that was into history and wanted to read a novel written during WWII from an anti-Nazi but German perspective? Or one music student that loved classical and wanted to know more about composition or musical theory? Not one that became interested in the Faust story, or read one of Mann's other books and wanted to continue? Doctor Faustus would have satisfied all of them. Granted this book was difficult even for me, an former English major in college and avid reader today, but no one had ever even tried. On the other hand, the book eventually found it's way to me instead of sitting on the shelf another 40 years, in pristine condition, and was finally read. Who knows, it might be lent away and read again, so the book may yet receive a better second life.

To me, the main character's deal with the devil parallels the seduction of the good German people by the man with the tiny mustache. The poisonous butterfly is a perfect metaphor for both. Adrian, and the German people, were looking only at the beautiful side of the deal and what may come of it while willfully ignoring the negative aspects lurking just below and making it all possible. Leverkühn's obsession with creating transcendent music mirrors the 3rd Reich's fanatical quest to fulfill Germany's right and destiny to be the next European and world superpower. But when your glory is derived from the oppression and slaughter of others, those crimes must eventually be paid for.

The perspective of the secretly dissenting German watching as the horrors of WWII unfurled before him was haunting to me. It's hard to argue with the fact that the United States is the world's evil empire now. I too look on as our country engages other countries in ways we do not support or condone, but there isn't much I can do on my own to stop it. Perhaps this karmic universal justice that came for Germany and Adrian Leverkühn will one day come for my country, leaving only wreck and ruin in its wake. Maybe the ship can't be righted and we will have to pay too one day for the seeds of violence and discord this country sowed around the world. I can certainly relate to the last line of the book when the narrator prays, "God be merciful to thy poor soul, my friend, my Fatherland." To sum up, I'd say this book came into my hands as fresh as the day it was published in more than one way.

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