Thursday, August 09, 2007

Dr. Faustus


I'm currently reading Thomas Mann's novel "Dr. Faustus". Such a strange novel to read in juxtaposition to Moynihan and Søderlind's "Lords Of Chaos"!

Where do these books on the Devil's musical works intersect? At crossroads where musicians sell their soul to the Devil - in a hell painted by music on a canvas of fire and ice - in an inferno of the intellect where the lies of the Great Deceiver and the lies of national socialism embrace intimately - in madness.


The book's narrative starts at the tail end of the 19th century and ends in 1940. It tells the story of Adrian Leverkühn, a young German composer who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for musical genius - a Robert Johnson of late-romantic / early-modern (Schoenberg!) classical music, so to say. Slowly, the composer loses his mind as anomie spreads through the Weimar republic and humanism loses it's foothold on the German mind. In a sense, the book is an inverted 'Bildungsroman' - a "novel of deformation", not a "novel of formation".

The book was written during the second world war, and parallels are drawn between the corruption of Leverkühn's spirit by the devil and the corruption of German culture by nazism - for Mann, both the Devil and nazism present an atavism, a throwback to medieval times.

The book takes up some of the themes already explored in "Der Zauberberg". Once again, the democratic-humanist world of Ludovico Settembrini is pitted against the totalitarian-romantic world of Leo Naphta - only Naphta has taken on vast, cosmic, metaphysical proportions, and has become a diabolical, impersonal yet vital force. The democratic-humanist world on the other hand appears unsure of itself, anemic, lifeless or even afraid of life, hypocritical, impotent.

As an inquiry into the spirit of nazism, the book did not entirely satisfy me. Certainly, fascism employed elements of a heterogeneous sacrality for the purposes of homogenizing the masses and gaining prestige. Fascist ideologues can for that reason be likened to "sorcerer's apprentices". However, the idea that the ideology is the Devil's work - an impersonal force, a contagious madness, taking possession of the minds of the German middle class - I find a little too unconvincing.

Also, fascism was not merely atavistic: fascism had a more complex relationship to modernity than a purely negative one.

Thus, as an analysis of the complex, contradictory forces at work in Western civilization, the book does not reach the hights of "Der Zauberberg".

Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book: it's expressionist style of writing is magnificent. The book appears to have been written in chiaroscuro; the dramatis personae are as caricatural as Nosferatu, as dr. Caligari and his somnambulist; and the more apocalyptic and fantastic passages certainly have a whiff of Häxan about them. The book's expressionism perfectly fits the subject, and a long conversation between the composer and the devil on the nature of beauty, truth and morality sent shivers down my spine. The book is brilliantly successful as an intellectual Grüselroman.


Some posts ago, I already wrote that one could imagine the history of the Norwegian Black Metal Inner Circle as a novel written by Dostoevski - the murder of Euronymous reminds me strongly of his novel 'Demons'; and one can also see Kristian 'Varg' Vikernes as a Raskolnikov without regrets.

Now, it has become possible for me to imagine the history of the Norwegian Black Metal Inner Circle as a variation on Thomas Mann's novel 'Dr. Faustus': Kristian 'Varg' Vikernes as the offspring of a well-educated and wealthy, but spiritually impoverished middle class, who sells his soul to the Devil for a few years of musical genius (certainly not the 25 years Leverkühn bargained for!) and who thereafter slowly descends into madness - hallucinating viking fascist robots from outer space! Vikernes's descent into insanity is paralleled by the rise of deranged neo-fascist ideologies within the Black Metal scene.


Here is a clip from the 1982 film adaptation of Mann's novel, "Doktor Faustus".


Reading Mann's book, I regularly wondered whether Bataille and Mann were familiar with each others work. Michel Surya's biography of Bataille offers no indication that Bataille was familiar with Mann's work.

Nonetheless, "Dr. Faustus" explores some of the same areas Bataille investigated in his work, amongst others in "La Structure Psychologique Du Fascisme". Some tentative observations:

In a sense, Bataille's work, Bataille's evil, is truth-loving - to the point of self-torture... However much Bataille wrote about evil, the Devil as Great Deceiver, as well as the lie, does not feature prominently in his work.

Bataille's virulent anti-humanism would certainly have clashed with Mann's staunch defense of humanist ideals. Bataille is likely to have been influenced by Georges Sorel, who figures as an intellectual bogeyman in "Dr. Faustus".

- There is an interesting stylistic parallel between Mann's book and Bataille's "L'Expérience Interieure". Both books show narrative/discourse coming apart at the seams, destructuring and breaking open at the intensity of the emotions experienced by the narrator (Bataille himself and Serenus Zeitblum, the narrator of Mann's book, respectively). Of course, the value attached by Bataille and the narrator of Mann's book to this destructuration is completely different. For Serenus Zeitblom, the destructuration is purely a negative phenomenon, an inadvertent transgression of the aesthetic norms of the Bildungsroman, an echo of the chaos in German interbellum society and of the madness in Leverkühn's mind. For Bataille, the destructuration runs parallel to the positive breaking-open of the rational confines of the ego.


Thomas Leverkühn sets three poems to music. I've reproduced them below.

Silent, Silent Night - William Blake

Silent, silent night,
Quench the holy light
Of thy torches bright;

For possessed of Day
Thousand spirits stray
That sweet joys betray.

Why should joys be sweet
Used with deceit,
Nor with sorrows meet?

But an honest joy
Does itself destroy
For a harlot coy.

Ode to a Nightingale - John Keats


My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.


O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:


Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.


Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.


I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.


Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.


Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Die Frühlingsfeyer - Friedrich Gottlob Klopstock (1. Fassung, 1759)

Nicht in den Ocean
Der Welten alle
Will ich mich stürzen!
Nicht schweben, wo die ersten Erschafnen,
Wo die Jubelchöre der Söhne des Lichts
Anbeten, tief anbeten,
Und in Entzückung vergehn!
Nur um den Tropfen am Eimer,
Um die Erde nur, will ich schweben,
Und anbeten!
Halleluja! Halleluja!
Auch der Tropfen am Eimer
Rann aus der Hand des Allmächtigen!
Da aus der Hand des Allmächtigen
Die grössern Erden quollen,
Da die Ströme des Lichts
Rauschten, und Orionen wurden;
Da rann der Tropfen
Aus der Hand des Allmächtigen!
Wer sind die tausendmal tausend,
Die myriadenmal hundert tausend,
Die den Tropfen bewohnen?
Und bewohnten?
Wer bin ich?
Halleluja dem Schaffenden!
Mehr, als die Erden, die quollen!
Mehr, als die Orionen,
Die aus Strahlen zusammenströmten!
Aber, du Frühlingswürmchen,
Das grünlichgolden
Neben mir spielt,
Du lebst;
Und bist, vielleicht - -
Ach, nicht unsterblich!
Ich bin herausgegangen,
Und ich weine?
Vergieb, vergieb dem Endlichen
Auch diese Thränen,
O du, der seyn wird!
Du wirst sie alle mir enthüllen
Die Zweifel alle
O du, der mich durchs dunkle Thal
Des Todes führen wird!
Dann werd ich es wissen:
Ob das goldne Würmchen
Eine Seele hatte?
Warest du nur gebildeter Staub,
Würmchen, so werde denn
Wieder verfliegender Staub,
Oder was sonst der Ewige will!
Ergeuß von neuem, du mein Auge,
Du, meine Harfe,
Preise den Herrn!
Umwunden, wieder von Palmen umwunden
Ist meine Harfe!
Ich singe dem Herrn!
Hier steh ich.
Rund um mich ist Alles Allmacht!
Ist Alles Wunder!
Mit tiefer Ehrfurcht,
Schau ich die Schöpfung an!
Denn Du,
Namenlosester, Du!
Erschufst sie!
Lüfte, die um mich wehn,
Und süsse Kühlung
Auf mein glühendes Angesicht giessen,
Euch, wunderbare Lüfte,
Sendet der Herr? Der Unendliche?
Aber itzt werden sie still; kaum athmen sie!
Die Morgensonne wird schwül!
Wolken strömen herauf!
Das ist sichtbar der Ewige,
Der kömmt!
Nun fliegen, und wirbeln, und rauschen die Winde!
Wie beugt sich der bebende Wald!
Wie hebt sich der Strom!
Sichtbar, wie du es Sterblichen seyn kannst,
Ja, das bist du sichtbar, Unendlicher!
Der Wald neigt sich!
Der Strom flieht!
Und ich falle nicht auf mein Angesicht?
Herr! Herr! Gott! barmherzig! und gnädig!
Du Naher!
Erbarme dich meiner!
Zürnest du, Herr, weil Nacht dein Gewand ist?
Diese Nacht ist Seegen der Erde!
Du zürnest nicht, Vater!
Sie kömmt, Erfrischung auszuschütten
Ueber den stärkenden Halm!
Ueber die herzerfreuende Traube!
Vater! Du zürnest nicht!
Alles ist stille vor dir, du Naher!
Ringsum ist Alles stille!
Auch das goldne Würmchen merkt auf!
Ist es vielleicht nicht seelenlos?
Ist es unsterblich?
Ach vermöcht ich dich, Herr, wie ich dürste, zu
Immer herrlicher offenbarst du dich!
Immer dunkler wird, Herr, die Nacht um dich!
Und voller von Seegen!
Seht ihr den Zeugen des Nahen, den zückenden
Hört ihr den Donner Jehovah?
Hört ihr ihn?
Hört ihr ihn?
Den erschütternden Donner des Herrn?
Herr! Herr! Gott! barmherzig und gnädig!
Angebetet, gepriesen
Sey dein herrlicher Name!
Und die Gewitterwinde? Sie tragen den Donner!
Wie sie rauschen! Wie sie die Wälder
Und nun schweigen sie! Majestätischer
Wandeln die Wolken herauf!
Seht ihr den neuen Zeugen des Nahen,
Seht ihr den fliegenden Blitz?
Hört ihr, hoch in den Wolken, den Donner des
Er ruft Jehovah!
Und der gesplitterte Wald dampft!
Aber nicht unsre Hütte!
Unser Vater gebot
Seinem Verderber
Vor unsrer Hütte vorüberzugehn!
Ach schon rauschet, schon rauschet
Himmel und Erde vom gnädigen Regen!
Nun ist, wie dürstete sie! Die Erd erquickt,
Und der Himmel der Fülle des Seegens entladen!
Siehe, nun kömmt Jehovah nicht mehr im Wetter!
Im stillen, sanften Säuseln
Kömmt Jehovah!
Und unter ihm neigt sich der Bogen des Friedens.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hi. im just rereading that book. only now i do get the full meaning of it, its very intertextual u know. tis great, might even be the best novel i know.

anyway, i dont agree with u on 2 points. u say:

"the idea that the ideology is the Devil's work - an impersonal force, a contagious madness, taking possession of the minds of the German middle class - I find a little too unconvincing."

well, i dont think mann explains nazism [or the "devil" for that matter] in such manner. tis rather about some symbolic pact one makes with oneself, in order to "free" himself of the "superego" - and several other "obstacles" to his developpement - in the process.

such pact is nonetheless a highly conscious one, has little to do with impersonal stuff, or with madness.

"Also, fascism was not merely atavistic: fascism had a more complex relationship to modernity than a purely negative one."

certainly: thats why tis so fascinating even after half a century, isnt it :) in a way, back then it was much more modern [post-modern actually] than communism.

but thats precisely the argument of mann [in faustus, and in zauberberg - naphta]: the "conservatory revolution" - that paradoxical term, true nonetheless.

adrians efforts are introduced as an extraordinary project, much more than blunt "atavism". same with the development of germanys cultural/political elite, in the 20s-30s.

[my 2 cents]