Commentary Magazine

Article Preview

Thomas Mann's “Doctor Faustus”:
“Terminal Work” of an Art Form and an Era

- Abstract

The great novels of the 20th century, its essential books, are without exception terminal books, apotheoses of the narrative form. Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Gide’s Faux-Monnayeurs, Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s great parables, Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Broch’s Das Tod Vergils, Sartre’s Nausée, Camus’ Etranger—each, in theme, is an inventory of our spiritual holdings, a moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical reckoning-up of our human estate; some of them, in form, carry abstraction to a point beyond which further evolution seems impossible. A deep, ultimate seriousness runs through them all, a seriousness which their ever-present irony increases rather than diminishes. Indeed, what is irony but the transcendence of self, a chain reaction of transcendence? Today, the spiritual, the artistic, the human itself balances on the highest peak of danger, “exposed on the mountains of the heart.” So much has called it into question—how could it help questioning itself?

And indeed art has come to question its own existence—cannot escape doing so. The last veils of fiction, the last pretense of a divine plaything, are gone; the real thing invades the work of art; bare reality, of more dimensions than the individual artist can cope with, decomposes and shatters the novel. How can the artist hope to reach the central, innermost condition of our world—which is his ultimate function—without going into its formidable factual and technical processes? How can he hope to master its growing complexity without a corresponding increase in density and abstractness of presentation, without speculative analysis and exegesis?

About the Author