Thomas Mann's “Doctor Faustus”:
“Terminal Work” of an Art Form and an Era
Few books have offered such a challenge to America’s critics and other readers as Thomas Mann’s recently published Doctor Faustus, which marks the climax of one of the great literary careers of our age—a career possibly as important and instructive as the works of art it produced. Erich Kahler here analyzes Doctor Faustus in relationship to Thomas Mann’s entire life and work and to the cultural and anti-cultural trends of the past decades. Dr. Kahler’s article has been translated from the German by Francis C. Golffing.
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?
Thus the story loses its value as a special event and becomes a parable of the human condition; the individual character becomes a type, the symbol a model. The artist today must load the tangible with so many levels of meaning that the complete work really becomes an orchestral score requiring a conductor—and indeed have single works of art ever before enlisted so many program notes and interpretations?
‘“When I hear about hearing . . .” says Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus. “When I read about reading . . .” would be a legitimate paraphrase: the reader cannot “follow” the theme without going one level of abstraction beyond it to embrace the entire structure, for the structure has in fact become the theme—the “what” ends up as the “how.”
The traditional art forms have grown problematic through external, social, and cultural evolution, as well as through internal evolution, evolution of technique; art has become its own subject matter. And since the function of the artist and the intellectual has been called into question by the moral and social events of our epoch, the artist himself is drawn into a kind of polyphonic soliloquy on his role in our world.
It is just here that we have the content of Thomas Mann’s entire work, which as a whole, bears the distinguishing traits of the great terminal books of our epoch. But in his work the terminal quality does not appear all at once; it may be watched as a process, evolving through decades.
Thomas Mann’s development as a novelist comprises the whole development of modem narrative prose. He began his career with a book that, though marked by the destiny of modem art, still resembled the traditional realistic novel. Indeed, he has gone on using the comfortably circumstantial, digressive manner of the 19th-century novel right up into the latest, “structuralist” stages of his work—even in this last summing-up, his Faust. Yet what a long way from Buddenbrooks to Doctor Faustus. All that has happened to us, to the world, to art, during the last half-century, can be read in the course of this journey.
Mann’s whole oeuvre, we have said, must be regarded as a single, consistent creation because, throughout, there may be felt in it an unconscious or semi-conscious tendency toward a structural unity of the whole. It is a dynamic macrocosm, a more and more dense and comprehensive complex of developing . motifs, exhibiting as a whole a fugal character such as is otherwise found only in single novels or works of art. Just as each work gains increasing symbolic richness by the use and intensification of a leitmotif and the fusing of several leitmotifs, so on a larger scale the work as a whole exhibits the progressive exfoliation and metamorphosis of one single, all-pervasive theme. Mann himself, in his autobiographical sketch, has pointed, not without surprise, to the relationships within the magic square: Buddenbrooks, Tonio Kröger, The Magic Mountain, and Death in Venice. Yet exact correspondences of this sort are to be found throughout his entire work.
The lifelong central theme of Mann’s books has been an inquiry into the function of art and the artist, of culture and the intellectual in modem society. This cluster of problems had its origin in the 19th century, rising out of the Industrial Revolution and the political changes attendant on it, out of the mechanization, collectivization, standardization of our world, and the increasing alienation of the artist from his society.
At first the artist took a stand for threatened culture: defensively in romanticism and aestheticism; aggressively in dandyism and insolent eccentricity. But gradually, almost insensibly, his attitude began to change: his own position, the nature of art and culture themselves, became problematic to him.
It was not that his attitude toward bourgeois society changed, but that he no longer supported culture unequivocally. Instead he began to lean more and more toward a new barbarism.
Even before Nietzsche we see signs of such a development. Leconte de Lisle wrote Poèmes Barbares, Théophile Gautier proclaimed: “La barbarie vaut mieux que la platitude.” With Nietzsche the problem becomes broadly apparent, and later developments branch out in many directions. One way leads directly through the brash extremism of the Futurists, of Spengler, Klages, and Jünger, to the trahison des clercs; another leads to the savagely defiant vagrancy of Knut Hamsun and D. H. Lawrence’s glorification of the vital urges; a third leads to the ambivalent scepticism in matters cultural of tired aristocrats such as Hermann Bang and Eduard Keyserling; the last and most farreaching way leads to the bold investigations of the contemporary novel.
Thomas Mann bad an initial advantage as compared with other great novelists of his generation, an advantage without which he could not have covered the vast distance between realism and structuralism. The problem fundamental to the modern Novel—the role of the intellectual within his society, a problem that, in the last analysis, is the problem of man generally, of the individual surviving precariously in a technological, collective, incommensurate world—was not a problem Mann had to realize and experience intellectually; it was given to him in his cradle as his primary experience of himself. He himself was the problem, by virtue of the contrasts of his origin, the conjunction of the bourgeois and the artistic. From childhood he bore within himself that tension which impels the basic theme of our era.
His earliest stories introduce this theme. They are all studies of outcasts: the misshapen or unfortunate, like little Herr Friedemann, the lawyer Jacoby (Little Lizzie), Tobias Mindernickel, Lobgott Piepsam (The Way to the Churchyard); the invalid, like Albrecht van der Qualen (The Wardrobe); the man set apart by religious exaltation, like the monk Hieronymus (Gladius Dei), the archetype of Savonarola (Fiorenza); and already, as early as The Dilettante and Spinell (Tristan), the outcast as literary man, the would-be-artist in his illegitimate, tragi-comic opposition to life and to the social norm. Incidentally, in both The Wardrobe and Tristan we find the germ of the motif of The Magic Mountain: the peculiar removal from life, the isolation and insulation that goes with illness and the atmosphere of healing. The sanitarium in Tristan almost strikes us as a sketch for the one in the Magic Mountain. Even so early as this Thomas Mann was in possession of the outlines of a work that was to be precipitated by an entirely different, unforeseeable experience, his sojourn at Davos.
These stories, as well as Buddenbrooks, are all what is commonly called realistic fiction. They are realistic in a cruel, often painful way that points to the influence of the great Russian novelists; they seem to result from a deliberate discipline in sustaining with exact imagination the minutest circumstances of human suffering, perverted emotion, painful embarrassment. But—and this is a wholly modern aspect of Mann’s style, distinguishing it from that of the Russian novelists—all these eccentric facts have been pushed to an extreme of precision, a point of caricature, where they turn into transcendent ironies. The experience of reality has become superintensive, ironically intensive. At the same time this irony has the property of creating symbols. A perfect example is the situation in The Way to the Churchyard: the contentious drunkard, Piepsam, tries to push the blond, young cyclist (life) from his bicycle. Later examples are Tonio Kröger in the Moulinet des Dames; the carious teeth of the Buddenbrooks and the consul’s collapse head-first into the gutter; Mario and the magician; and so forth. These are all extreme, vicious, ironic contrasts, and their extreme irony is what makes them symbolic. They have their root in an archetypal conflict, the ironic constitution of the artist himself.
The style of every genuine artist is originally a style of personal experience; this is true of Thomas Mann in a very special sense. There is hardly another literary oeuvre that bears so clear an autobiographical stamp. Mann himself has told us, for instance, in his autobiographical sketch, that every single detail in Death in Venice is authentic, none of it fictitious. All that happens to any individual endowed with a truly personal style of experience seems to converge into an organic system of symbols and to assume an apparently inevitable relationship to his nature. This phenomenon is particularly marked in Thomas Mann, whose fundamental problem was shaped by the circumstances of his birth. Since he experiences everything under the sign of the primary tension of his being, the raw material of life almost immediately assumes for him a symbolic character. The reciprocal irony of his psychological situation, and that further irony which transcends it, sharpen the symbolism still more. This peculiar disposition, this instinctive tendency to organize all experience symbolically, seems to account for the unique organic inter-relatedness, the fugal character of Mann’s entire work.
Even the works of his early, realistic period evidence a very personal system of symbolic coordinates, an irony that creates distance and transcendence. Both in Buddenbrooks and in Tonio Kröger, the fundamental, personal problem is developed almost autobiographically, in the first, genealogically, from the bourgeois standpoint, in the second, individually, from the standpoint of the artist. Bourgeois and artist, each turns his gaze and inclination toward his counterpart: there is an exact correspondence between the consul Thomas Buddenbrook, who finds solace in Schopenhauer, and Tonio Kröger, with his nostalgia for the normal, blond, and respectable.
Already culture and intellect are represented as decadence, love is associated with decline; the artist is seen as a pariah from the start, iridescent with suspect hues, shading into the daemon, the invalid, the social outcast, the adventurer, the criminal; already he is stranded in the ironic situation of expressing a life he himself is unable to live. And already the multiple variations the basic theme is to undergo in the later books become discernible. Tonio Kröger’s identification, somehow felt by him to be legitimate, with the swindler, foreshadows Felix Krull, swindler-by-extravagance-of-fantasy, and the blasphemous hoax of the paraphrase of Dichtung und Wahrheit in Krull’s diary. A single metaphor of Tonio’s (“mufti’s no use . . .”) furnishes the germ of Royal Highness, the outcast “upward,” the sublime clown who keeps directing a performance that is being enacted without him.
From here on the motifs split and ramify and re-join, form new variations, change keys. In Death in Venice the conflict that had earlier appeared as an external friction between art and life is internalized; it is within the artist, indeed, within art itself: a conflict between daemon and discipline. Discipline is what preserves the artist, what justifies art and keeps it in the framework of social responsibility. Once discipline slackens, the daemon, the eros, breaks loose, and in the maelstrom of debauchery both art and artist are swept into sickness and death. The active counterpart of the passive Aschenbach is the magician Cipolla (Mario and the Magician), another outcast, deformed, but one who compensates and overcompensates his deformity—a deeper image of the artist seen as the irresponsible puppeteer of souls who uses his magic to cast people into the most unholy ecstasies. At this point the artist passes over into the demagogue, the dictator. He too is swept into perdition by his daemon, but not because of mere passivity but because of hubris: unlike Aschenbach, Cipolla does not let himself go or drift, but on the contrary exercises all his powers. He is a virtuoso of the will, a fiend for the sheer joy of conquest. He does not yield to his daemon but allies himself with it, indeed identifies himself with it, challenges it, incites it.
The Magic Mountain projects Aschenbach’s psychic split into the world at large. The powers of the psyche widen out into whole landscapes. Magic expands into the magic mountain, into the sphere of an intellectual, morbid, irresponsible dissociation from life, where culture and nursing merge, and where the dissolution of dying over-intensifies the stimuli of life. Discipline becomes the valley of duties, of normal, responsible action. But these too—the duties, the responsibilities, the active, normal life—lead into war and final collapse.
Here we come upon an alteration in the fundamental motif. The normality of the normal is no longer secure. Before this, Mann’s work had been dedicated to the problem of life’s boundaries: by means of his various outcasts he had delimited an area of healthy, normal, insouciant life. Now he discovers signs of decay on both sides of the boundary—in the world of action as well as up there on the magic mountain. Dying is part of living as living is part of dying.
The ambivalence, the paradox of all living things is at last revealed. The Magic Mountain opens out into an unanswered question: What is life anyway? What is normal? What is man and where does he stand? What is the norm of man and his measure? Goethe’s question is raised once more (in a world terribly changed)—the question of Tasso, of Iphigenie, of the Elective Affinities, of Faust. . . .
In all of Thomas Mann’s books after The Magic Mountain, there runs through the persistent motif of conflict between the abnormal and the supposedly normal, an anxious question as to the being and becoming of man. The Joseph novels open up the remotest layers of our mythical, totemistic past, which are at the same time the darkest layers of our psyche, the underworld of savage urges, lying ever in wait within us. Joseph rises out of these regions in a long, precarious process of sublimation, and there rises with him, within him, the sublimated, spiritualized God-image—he being the prefiguration of Jesus. He too bears a stigma from the beginning, the stigma of Grace. Grace again is full of abysses and wiles, and great discipline is required of its possessor. But, for one supreme moment, the norm seems to have shifted to spiritual man. For one moment. Joseph’s counterpart was to appear, the Antichrist, the man stigmatized by the curse of spirit: Faustus.
The presentation of the Apollonian genius in Lotte in Weimar forms the transition. The image of Goethe emerges intact, “great, serene, and wise,” as “a sacrifice—and bringer of sacrifice”; genius is preserved as an object of our reverence, sublimated as “simply the face of man.” All this is still in the vein of Joseph. But behind it we see the cost, the full measure of Goethe’s, of the artist’s sacrifice: not only the mastering of a world increasingly packed with factual material, of days crowded with labor, and of a refractory audience, but also the ruining of many people, among them those closest to him, and the abandoning of his own everyday humanity. Discipline once more, distance, alienation, and the chill of an uncanny, transcendent irony. This brings us to Faustus, who is entirely governed by this coldness.
I have called Faustus the final chapter of a terminal oeuvre.
To start with, it gathers together all the variations and filiations of the fundamental motif, relates them in a new way, tests one against the other, and reduces them all in magnificent concentration to the old dominant theme. For what else is this Faustus but a cosmic Tonio Kröger, a Tonio Kröger expanded to his ultimate epochal and human significance? Faustus represents the extreme, the most mature fruit of the archproblem, the arch-experience. The psychological split is portrayed through two characters: Adrian Leverkühn and Serenus Zeitblom—the intellectual adventurer and the “healthy” bourgeois.
The character who lives a normal life writes the biography of the one who, in the simple, human sense, is not allowed to have a life. In Adrian, Tonio Kröger’s primary alienation from life, his ironic detachment from it, is pushed to its metaphysical limits. Aschenbach’s daemon, which operates through love and sickness, and Cipolla’s daemon, which operates more subjectively as hubris and defiant self-aggrandizement, are united in Adrian’s devil. Daemon and discipline are no longer seen as opposites, but discipline comes to serve the daemon. Between daemon and discipline, impulse and reason, death and life, there goes on the same mystical dialectic, the same reciprocal intensification that we found in The Magic Mountain. Besides, Adrian is really Joseph’s counterpart, his spiritual kin. Adrian’s elevation leads to perdition, whereas the “Pit” leads Joseph to glory; the sublimation which in Joseph’s case is an act of God, in Adrian’s case is an act of the Devil. From a different point of view Adrian, the Dionysian musical genius, is a counterpart of Goethe, the Apollonian, visual genius. Here too the opposites betray affinity, for both are in each: in Goethe the dark, romantic, Faustian impulse; in Adrian the lucid, visual, rational grasp of the whole. But in the last analysis the blessing and the curse seem to be contained in the contrast between word and sound, poetry and music.
Faustus is also a terminal book in point of style, the ultimate precipitation of Thomas Mann’s artistic discipline. I have already intimated how this discipline, which is of North German, Hanseatic, Prussian provenance, developed through artistic filiations and the irony of an inner tension into a symbol-creating property. Discipline in art must necessarily express itself in a sharpened sense of form, an intensive striving for organic wholeness, and that means to see things symbolically.
From without, from Richard Wagner and Tolstoy, came the suggestion of the leitmotif, which in Tonio Kröger already is transferred from characters to ideas. Mann tells us that in Tonio Kröger he for the first time conceived of narrative composition as a texture of ideas woven of various themes, as a musical nexus—his affinity to music was very strong from the outset. Out of such a musical conception grows the fugal character of the later works and of his oeuvre as a whole.
But Faustus can hardly be compared any longer to a fugue; it is almost—if we may apply musical terms to a literary composition—what Adrian calls a “strict movement.” It is a structure in which each detail has an exact symbolic reference, a structure of utter complexity, in which not only the various dimensions and layers, but within these each sub-motif and minor variation, is related to the rest and back to the fundamental motif. In spite of the semblance of ease in both invention and narrative, nothing here is accidental, nothing stands for itself alone; everything refers to everything else, each detail is determined by the whole. Correspondences run backwards and forwards, between beginning and end, upper and lower levels, in a kind of labyrinthine mathematics. From Buchel to Pfeiffering; from the father’s “speculating on the elements” to the son’s Symphonia Cosmologica and his fantastic excursions into the galactic and submarine spheres; from his actual mother Elsbeth to Mother Manardi and the ultimate mother Schweigestill; from Stallhanne to the maid Walpurgis; and from the laughing dog Suso, through the black swine at the entrance of the devil-house in Palestrina, to the dog Kaschperl (one of the devil’s nicknames); from the dog’s laugh to Adrian’s bent for laughter and the tendency of his music to parody and “sardonic deviltry”; from the clear-wing moth to the whore; from the “greedy drop” and the osmotic, heliotropic pseudo-creatures to the pathological lumbar migrations of the spirochetes and to the mannikins of the Gesta Romanorum; from Dürer’s “Apocalypse” to Kleist’s Puppet Show; from the destiny of Adrian’s doctors to that of the Rogge sisters; and from the divines of Halle to the intellectuals of Munich who smirk at the bankruptcy of the Intellect—among all these a net of converging relationships is woven, and one rational and daemonic system contains them all. Even the most casual incident has its place: an emerald ring is engraved with a plumed serpent whose tongue is feathered like an arrow; an outing into the Bavarian mountains leads to Linderhof, the castle of a mad, possessed king.
The great drama of Tonio Kröger as Faustus, the drama of modem art and Germany, mirrored by the humble scribe Serenus—the impotent subject and onlooker—truly images the deeply involved Thomas Mann, ever present in the background. It is enacted simultaneously on all levels, no less in the theoretical discussions and spiritual ventures of musical technique than in syphilis, murder, and madness. The same disquieting suspense informs the descriptions of musical scores and the biographical sections; indeed the climactic boldness of the musical compositions comes to stand for the biographical climax.
We need not be surprised if readers shake their heads over the minute descriptions of a kind of music that has never been written and perhaps never could be written. People will ask: Is this necessary? Is this possible? It was necessary, and it has been done. It is both legitimate and necessary. A reader who wishes to be spared the reading of the theoretical discussions and technical details may as well spare himself the reading of the book altogether; there is no other way of penetrating to its innermost meaning. The time is past when writers could give credibility to artist-characters by letting them work for years at some monumental literary idea in color or sound and then having them perorate about the work, as Hauptmann and even Ibsen did with their artist-characters. While this procedure has always been false and threadbare, today it has become quite impossible. The progression of man today, the progression of mind, is through technical processes, and it is through them that we must seek it and understand it.
Thus the channelling of events through technical processes is not a sign of weakness or arbitrariness, not mere caprice, but an imperative requirement of the total structure giving the literary work its power of persuasion. For at the center of this book lies the problem of the destiny of artistic genius and of art itself.
But what happens in and to Adrian comprises not only the fate of modern art and the intellectual; it comprises also the tragedy of Germany that is enacted in the background, the transgression of the German character, of which Adrian partakes; it comprises the general crisis of our world. The narrative takes place within three overlapping time-spans: the time-span of Adrian, 1885 to 1941, which is extended backwards into the historical depths of medieval Germany and the German Reformation by means of the spiritual climate of Kaisersaschern where Adrian spent his childhood and by means of the humanistic-pietistic university town of Halle where he studied; the time-span of the Third Reich, whose period of incubation coincides with Adrian’s prime, and whose triumph and fall Zeitblom witnesses with horror even as he writes the story of Adrian’s life; finally, our own epoch, which has given birth to the crisis of modem art and of the intellectual, and which is continuing even as we read.
All these time-strata are not only homologous but also variously interconnected. Thus the chronicle of German political events, inserted at intervals by Zeitblom into his biography of Adrian, is sometimes cross-connected with that biography, as in the discussions of the students at Halle and of the Munich intellectuals, or in the appearance of the impresario Fitelberg, who confronts Germanism with Judaism.
At the same time the book is interwoven with strands of Thomas Mann’s personal history; there are long passages that are more nakedly autobiographical than any other writing by this author, who throughout his career has drawn so largely on his own life. Kaisersaschern, its form and atmosphere, the “witches” in its streets, point toward Mann’s native city, Lübeck; Palestrina is the place where, under virtually identical circumstances, Thomas Mann wrote his Buddenbrooks. Pfeiffering and Munich both evoke familiar scenes. Mann’s family, his friends and acquaintances have been introduced into the story barely disguised, in some cases without change of name, in the fashion of montage.
This bold and rather disturbing procedure—apart from the lure and significance of parody—has the character of a radical confession of self. It is as though Thomas Mann wished to emphasize that he belongs in the story, is a part of it, that the destinies of Leverkühn and Zeitblom as well as of Germany, the intellectual, and modern art, deeply involve him. This pro domo applies not only to the author but also to the work. The compulsive tendency toward irony and parody in Adrian’s creation; his rejection of make-believe and the “divine game” which leads to the self-abolition of art; the “never-relaxed, perilous playing of art on the edge of impossibility”; its “pilgrimage on peas”; its “strict counterpoint”; “the highest and strictess organization, a planetary, cosmic norm”; the “universal unity of dimensions”; the “calculation raised to mystery”; and finally the “thrust from intellectual coldness into the adventure of new feeling,” the desire for “an art without suffering, psychologically sound, far from solemn, serenely intimate,” “an art on terms of closest familiarity with mankind,” and the conviction that the spirit “even in its most daring sallies, researches, and ventures, which seem to remove it from the common taste, can nevertheless count on serving humanity, and, in the end, in a very roundabout way, even actual people. . . .”—all this is the self-projection not only of the author, it is the self-projection and self-reflection of the book. If we listen closely we may even catch in the cruel narrative that vibrato of the voice attributed to Adrian when he speaks with a half-modest, half-haughty casualness of the artist’s ultimate familiarity with mankind.
It is Serenus Zeitblom who serves to strengthen confessional to the point of self-interpretation. True, he is the author’s other half, the Overbeck of the Nietzschean Adrian, a second-remove ironic reflection of the normal on the abnormal, but his true function goes far beyond all this. He is the mediator between the various spheres, not only between Adrian and life, but also between the book and the world. He is a loose personification of the author’s symbolic conscience, the commentator whose fears and forebodings, queries and meditations furnish the necessary cross-references—perhaps too many and too explicit for the acute reader, yet still hardly enough for those obtuse to symbolism. It is he who provides the additional experience of the German tragedy and integrates it with the rest; who, with his numerous reservations and confidences, makes the highly wrought craftsmanship seem easy and unobtrusive, and effects the transition to human emotion.
The creation of this character enabled Thomas Mann to maintain his highly synthetic Adrian, this cosmic figure, within the context of humanity, to make of him a real and moving character, though this is accomplished a little at the expense of Zeitblom, who often feels and expresses things that are actually outside his pale. However, the author has tried in advance to give psychological credibility to these deviations—and, indeed, man is an unstable, vibrant substance whose hidden depths may be stirred to unforeseeable effects by certain crises and stimuli. Furthermore, in this book psychology no longer counts. Zeitblom is a voice, ultimately the author’s voice: “I am too close to my subject . . . but when things become serious art is left behind. . . .” Of course this itself is artifice, but it passes over into truth.
This monumental undertaking is terminal I also in that it truly represents the contemporary version of the Faust problem. Valéry’s Faust, which plays with very similar ideas, is but a fascinating existentialist idyll compared with this. Thomas Mann brings this representative symbol, not only of German but of Western culture, up to date. He treats it with finality, secularizing it and its daemon, and integrating it in a purely mundane cosmos. Redemption here has become synonymous with integration. This means that the Faustian drama is revealed as the dialectical predicament of every creature, the inborn paradox of life.
This process permeates all levels of the book. Adrian’s Faustian character is constitutional. The daemon resides within him from the start, in his migraine, in his enormous intelligence which rapidly assimilates all that can be known. Thence ennui, the challenge to the ever more sublime, ironic transcendence, risibility, and a coldness both somber and blasé. The daemon also surrounds him, in the father who “speculates on the elements,” in the medieval German climate of Kaisersaschern, in the latent polyphony of the vast collection of musical instruments in his uncle’s warehouse and the growing lure of the mathematical magic of music. The genius of the stammering organist Kretschmar and the example of Beethoven carry him further, further still the theological studies at Halle, which Adrian chooses partly out of ascetic conceit, partly as a supreme feat of self-mastery, a braving of the highest powers.
For theology is a highly charged, daemoniac field of force. It survives in our modern world as a last island of medieval spirituality, a twilight area of magical dialectics and dialectical magic. This accounts for its deep affinity with mathematico-magical music. The daemon takes on greater reality in two professors of divinity, Kumpf and Schleppfuss. The baroque and blustering Kumpf, after the manner of Luther, throws bread rolls at the devil lurking in the corner of his room. But Schleppfuss, who proves by slippery, keen logic the interdependence of good and evil and the verity of witchcraft, represents, as his appearance and name indicate, the Evil One himself.
In Leipzig, whither Adrian goes later to pursue his musical studies—the attraction of music proving more concrete and immediate—the daemon finally assumes an active and decisive role and starts intervening, from within as well as from without. Adrian’s proud superiority, his sensitive intellectuality and primal alienation are associated with an extreme chastity, a chastity more innocent because more naive than the pious and shrewd chastity of Joseph. It contains both a touching childlikeness and an element of cold pride.
It is just this kind of rarefied innocence that invites the deepest humiliation by sex and a consequent involvement in guilt. Indeed this presumptuous intellectuality, this ironic transcendence, constitutes in itself the Fall. The porter in Leipzig who guides Adrian to a brothel instead of a restaurant is merely an instrument of the inner daemon. Love flares up at the most casual physical contact, the purest love—with a whore, love returned even from the swamp, and this love, love from the first closed to the genius, contains the poison, the demoniac involvement, the Mephistophelian pact—that in reality was concluded from birth.
Original Sin has its way; the love-poison is consumed, consciously, despite all warnings. The pact is sealed, partly out of a genuine commitment to love, partly out of proud defiance, the innate urge to self-enhancement, to the supreme act of challenge. This monstrous union of the highest with the lowest, the most solitary with the most promiscuous, of genius with vulgus, this union—fulfilment and treason in one—constitutes one of the most moving love stories in world literature. It also contains in germ the manifold meaning of this powerful book.
From here on tragedy takes its predestined course. The wanton, ghastly dialogue with the Devil in Palestrina, while ostensibly the center of the book, only expresses what has been clear from the beginning: “Thou shalt not love.”
And another thing it makes utterly clear is the primary determinance, the biological conditioning of the spiritual drama. “You see me,” says the Devil,“therefore I exist for you. Is it worth while asking whether I really exist? Is not that which acts actual? Is truth not that which is felt and experienced?” Thus hallucination and reality have equal validity, and the fellow lolling on the sofa speaks both from within and from without. The coldness that emanates from him is nothing else than the reflection of the spiritual coldness of Adrian, of that white heat that feels like ice to the touch; and the Mephistophelian wit is nothing else than Adrian’s own irony. It is the same with all subsequent events: the ruin of the amorous friend whom Adrian, at once bashful and diabolic, sends as his suitor to the girl they both love; the girl’s recoil; and, in his house, the death of his little nephew, the dearest of all to him, the last, tenderest Eros; set over against these, the spiritual closeness of the woman who instinctively keeps herself at a distance, whom he never sees—concord only between strangers: it is all emanated by force of that inner magic in a person which has the property of creating destiny all around itself.
Adrian’s Faustian drama is set entirely within the being of spiritual man. The old cosmic drama between Heaven and Hell has been transferred into the human heart. Even the voyages into the stellar system and the submarine world are phantasmagoria nourished by science. The theological conflict is secularized; God and the Devil are secularized and made to dwell in a single body.
How naively chaste, how allegorically pure was Goethe’s tragedy by comparison! There the theological element pervaded the whole cosmic scene, good and evil were neatly separated, and man was endowed with free choice. This contemporary Faustus is likewise full of theology, but theology has become a small, atavistic residue, a medieval remnant, revealed as a deeply suspect region where God and Devil fluidly merge, are mutually dependent, where the good is a fleur du meal and vice versa.
The Faustian man has stepped over into the secular realm of art, and his fate becomes the very fate of modem art, the fate of the alien intellectual in our mechanized world. His fate is inherent in his intellectuality and insofar as he is what he is, and does not deny himself, he has no longer any choice. In his very attempt to realize what is creatively true he finds himself today, together with art, together with all that is essentially human, in a diabolical plight, in the state of alienation, of the Fall—the Fall by rising, by ironic transcendence. What is good, what is bad? Sound or sick? What is innocence, if the purest—the spirit—is sin? Where lies the norm? All this has become difficult to resolve. Concepts and values are no longer immune, but have become tainted by each other.
Thus the drama is reduced to a point; event becomes stasis, becomes existence. Life’s ambiguity, life’s paradox, is revealed. The Devil resides in God and God in the Devil. Sublimest chastity becomes the easiest prey of the whore.
The German character, “threatened with being wrapt up in itself like a cocoon,” with “the poison of solitude,” beset with longings, with the urge to break into the world, is beguiled into a grab for world power that brings it nothing but the world’s hatred, and suffering. The nation whose power of abstraction is the highest, whose spirituality is the most perfectly and perilously detached, the nation of Kant, Schiller, Hölderlin, plunges ahead of the rest into a sub-animal condition. This is the nation that has created the model of a modem secularized hell, where the incredible actually happens, “without any accounting,” in sound-proof cellars, where torment and lust are commingled.
And what of modern art? What of this terminal book, this extreme document? Do we not find the same symptoms here? Magic has developed into the strictest structural norm, and the strictest norm—in science, too—leads back into magic. Ultimate irony, the chain reaction of transcendence, mixes with the elements and becomes deadly serious. From the furthest, cosmic, objectivity we are thrust into utter subjectivity, the confessional.
In paradoxes such as these, indeed throughout the crisis of our age, we sense the motif of Kleist’s Puppet Show: “Thus once again we must eat of the Tree of Knowledge in order to fall back into the state of innocence.” The entire effort, the supreme effort, of the contemporary spirit is directed toward this: to eat once again of the Tree of Knowledge, to make possible the impossible, redemption through union, through closest familiarity of climactic spirit with mankind. And the last hope of spirit, “the hope beyond hopelessness,” “transcendence of despair,” is the paradox of Grace, that salvation comes only of utter desperation.