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Friday Column: Mann, Faustus, and the Modernist Morality

(When I decided to discuss Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus on this blog, it quickly became clear that I could expend thousands and thousands of words without nearly exhausting everything there is to discuss in this book. Thus, I’m going to break up my discussion of Faustus into a number of pieces taking on certain of th book’s themes and ideas. This is the first.

Note that all quotes are from the original 1948 translation made by H.T. Lowe-Porter. There is a more recent one made by John E. Woods, which I have some reason to believe is a better translation.)


Perhaps the thing I most respect about Doctor Faustus is Mann’s willingness in this book to leap into intellectually fraught territory and his utter ability to pull it off. Here, Mann takes on some of the most difficult topics imaginable, and he succeeds in discussing them with great rigor, nuance, and originality. Simply put, in territory where many authors would humiliate themselves or simply fall short in trite banalisms, Mann comes through admirably.

Perhaps the thorniest subject Mann gets into in Faustus is to wonder whether art has moral content. Artists, and those who enjoy their work, seem to be generally sensitive to any attempts to mix art and morals; there’s a prevalent idea that to consider a work’s morality is somehow vulgar, dilettantish, beside the point, and I think a lot of people would simply disdain the question if it were raised. Perhaps a few braver souls would delve into the matter and come out simply looking foolish.

But in Faustus Mann is pretty clearly debating whether the compositions of Adrian–our composer who has struck a deal with the Devil–should be considered from a moral standpoint. What makes this all the more striking is that Mann puts on this debate in the context of classical music, the art form that is typically considered most abstract and therefore safe from questions of good and evil.

Adrian’s biographer, Serenus Zeitbloom, puts us on notice as early as page 10, when he defines culture as the "entrance of the dark and uncanny into the service of the gods." Here he’s positing art as something potentially dangerous, something that forces the artist to descend into destructive territory.

But beyond that, Mann is quite consciously placing art into a relationship with the mysterious and with deities, both good and evil. This is important because Faustus is an overwhelmingly theological book, one that not only explores the intersection between art and religion but also takes on a number of long-standing theological questions.

Let’s not let the latter concern us right now, though, or else we’ll be off in an entirely different direction. The point simply is that Faustus is a book that contemplates religion with intellectual rigor and nuance, and it is no coincidence that religion figures so largely in this book that is foremost about classical music and the nature of art.

To return to Zeitbloom’s fine coinage, "entrance of the dark and uncanny into the service of the gods"–I want to look at it in the light of a certain theological discussion that takes place about 50 pages later. Adrian, who as a young man has gone to study theology at university, lays out a Christian responses to the familiar question of why God permits evil in the world. Mann’s argument is complex and intersects interestingly with certain ideas meandering through the novel, but I’d like right now to concentrate on what Mann writes about freedom:

God’s logical dilemma had consisted in this: that He had been incapable of giving the creature, the human being and the angel, both independent choice, in other words free will, and at the same time the gift of not being able to sin. Piety and virtue, then, consisted in making a good use, that is to say no use at all of the freedom which God had to grant . . .

If we consider the dark and uncanny as an essential ingredient of art, then artists certainly don’t make a "good" use of God’s freedom. Rather, they must sin in order to explore the realms required by art, and yet, if we follow the quote to its conclusion, they are nonetheless acting in the service of the gods in doing so.

Mann has implicitly placed art into moral territory–the territory of honoring God and the deal He has made with humanity. Then he steps into altogether different moral territory:

Then freedom was the opposite of inborn sinlessness, freedom meant the choice of keeping faith with God, or having traffic with demons and being able to mutter beastlinesses at the Mass. That was a definition suggested by the psychology of religion. . . . [Freedom now plays a role]–as I write down this description of a life–in the war now raging [i.e. World War II], and as I in my retreat like to believe, not least in the souls and thoughts of our German people, upon whom, under the domination of the most audacious license, is dawning perhaps for the first time in their lives a notion of the importance of freedom. Well, we had not got so far by then. The question of freedom was, or seemed in our student days, not a burning one, and Dr. Schleppfuss might give to the word the meaning that suited the frame of his lecture and leave any other meanings on one side. . . . But he was mindful of them. . . . And his theological definition of freedom was an apologia and a polemic against the "more modern," that is to say more insipid, more ordinary ideas which his hearers might associate with them.

And so the matter of freedom is not just an artistic and religious matter–it is a cultural and political one as well. It is something being hotly debated in early 20th-century Germany; by then, freedom had become a realm that was up for grabs, where the religious interpretation fought it out with what an artist might consider freedom to be, or what up-and-coming radical intellectuals might say freedom was. And, as Mann reminds us, though he need not, from this debate over what freedom would mean to the Germans came the distinctly Nazi definition, one which abetted Hitler’s rise to power and permitted him and his adherents to carry their their evil agenda.

Though Faustus is a book primarily concerned with artistic freedom, Mann argues that a true contemplation of it must include an analysis of the other kinds of freedom as well; thus, he looks at the concept of freedom from all angles: from the religious angle of why God permits it; from a cultural angle of the classic German ideas of freedom butting up again the modern ones developing in the early 20th century; and from the artistic angle of how art relates to free will and what this means for morality in art.

All this talk of God and morality brings up a good question: Is Adrian doomed to hell, or does he ascend to heaven after he dies? The question must be asked, because if we take Faustus as a book about God, the Devil, heaven, hell, and souls, then we must consider where the book’s principal character goes after he dies, and what this implies for Mann’s discussion of morality in art. In other words, we must ask whether Adrian works for the Devil, who it appears is the one that permits Adrian to make his strange, sometimes beautifully disfigured art, or if he is really working for God, who allows Adrian his freedom to stray toward the Devil in the service of ultimate good.

But before all that, let’s ask a more fundamental question: Does the Devil ever actually enter into this novel? I don’t know. All we have of Adrian’s supposed deal is a narration of it written by Adrian, who we know is unreliable, prone to jokes, a frequent exaggerator, and someone who was already well-infected with syphilis and perhaps a little mad when the supposed deal took place.

In fact, as if to further encourage us to question the truth of Adrian’s tale of meeting the Devil (which itself is an opaque, odd document written in old German and difficult to follow), not long after the deal is confessed to Zeitbloom, Adrian tells him an incredible story of how he and a scientist used a submarine to travel to the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps nervously, Zeitbloom takes it all as a big joke,–and maybe it is–but Adrian remains perfectly deadpan throughout the entire narration, never giving an indication that he is joking. (How a recluse like Adrian who scarcely left his country home could find means to accomplish this is never discussed.)

Mann has placed this amazing tale almost directly after Zeitbloom finds out about the deal with the Devil, and I can think of no other purpose for putting it right there (beside letting Mann flex his considerable lyrical muscle as he describes the realm at the bottom of the sea) than to cast doubt on whether the Devil actually made a deal with Adrian, to ask us to please consider the state of Adrian’s mind, or to consider whether this Devil document isn’t another one of his jokes.

Amidst all this doubt, I think that, ultimately, the issue of whether or not the Devil was actually in Adrian’s presence doesn’t matter: what matters is that Adrian has knowingly strayed from God in the service of his art–he has made his own deal, and he knows it–and if the Devil didn’t really appear then perhaps the document is an emenation from his guilty conscience. Regardless, the deal–real or not–colors what music comes out of Adrian. Mann paints the 12-tone system (created in real life by Arnold Schoenberg, but in the novel Adrian’s creation) as a system that could only have come from a descent into the dark and uncanny, and for the majority of his career Adrian creates music that is tinted by the places he had to enter in order to develop his system. He is further tainted by being a purposeful recluse, a misanthrope who needs his anti-humanism to struggle against the grain of the then-dominant (but also hopelessly calcified) strains of classical music. Adrian’s art sends him back before the Renaissance all the way to the earliest stages of modern music, and it is no coincidence that this radical conservatism parallels the very radically conservative ideas that animate the Nazis and their intellectual adherents.

While contemplating the moral content of Adrian’s music alongside religion and Nazi politics, Mann also implies that morality in art is perhaps a concern that only became viable in the 20th century. While discoursing at length on Adrian’s art, Zeitbloom, as he often does, breaks off to expound on an idea about art and nature that occurs to him. He says that in pre-Modernist periods, artists aspired to make their works appear part of the natural world. He says that the works seemed to spring fully formed nature, like Athena from Zeus’s head. In fact, not only were pre-Modernist notable for aspiring toward this; they were also notable for even being able to aspire to it. Zeitbloom contends that in the Modernist period, this is no longer possible.

Artists in the Modernist era and beyond can no longer hope for the naive relationship between art and its viewers that permitted such an idea as the "natural" work because culture has become too sophisticated; we no longer can believe in the work that flows from the pen as if dictated by God; rather, we know what a slow, ugly birth all good art must have. Not only that–also in the Modernist period we begin to interrogate the relationship of the artist to her art, to see the formative process itself as something that art is meant to turn in on itself and contemplate.

This division between natural and unnatural art is a matter of free will–Does the artist struggle and create something herself, or is the art a matter wholly of inspiration, some part of nature that only uses the artist as a vessel?

I think that, in the end, Mann sides clearly on the side of free will. In a rather insidious, telling touch, almost all of the art that Adrian creates while under his deal with the Devil is infected with something of the Devil’s evil. It seems that the Devil will have his cake and eat it too–that is, he will get Adrian’s soul, but he will also find a way to renege on his contract by corrupting Adrian’s work and turning it to his own ends. As proof of the Devil’s success, even Zeitbloom, Adrian’s biggest backer, accepts that Adrian’s greatest masterpiece is a work that is part and parcel of the pre-Nazi sentiment that pervades Germany in the run-up to Hitler. (And Zeitbloom is all too aware that World War II and the Holocaust–as well as the horror of toltalitarian society–will render any art created in the Nazi image unviable after the Germans have been defeated.)

As long as Adrian’s art is controlled by the Devil’s influence, I think we have to side with the view that art is part of nature, that the artist’s free will ultimately doesn’t create the art. But then the very final piece that Adrian writes, the piece that Adrian never actually plays because he spiritually and artistically dies as he raises his hands before the piano–I think in this piece, Adrian succeeds in ridding himself of the Devil’s influence. The piece is called The Lament of Faustus, and it is the moan of a man pained by what he has done with his life. I think that in this piece Adrian has finally succeeded in battling the Devil to his knees, in creating a work that is not infected with the Devil’s evil. It is a lament to be sure, not a victorious trouncing of the Devil but a sort of victory by negation, one that only succeeds insofar as it denies the Devil’s spell. And I think that as a sort of last shot at Adrian, a final stalemate between the two, the Devil deprives him of the chance of ever playing his piece. If Adrian beats the Devil by finally writing something contrary to his influence–a wail that demonstrates his anguish and cautions others against his course–the Devil will at least smite him down before he can take the wail from the realm of the abstract and articulate it.

And so, I think that when Adrian writes this final piece, he writes it beneath the visage of God: that is, Adrian writes it as a godly man exercising his God-given free will. He has finally embraced true artistic freedom, has created a moral piece of art by using his freedom to create music in God’s spirit and not by partnering with the Devil. He has perhaps succeeded in not merely being a vessel but in exercising true artistic creativity. Perhaps then Faustus is telling us that Modernist art, in its struggle to push art into regions it has never before seen, in its Faustian thirst for knowledge that is perhaps different from any that has been felt before the Modernist era, runs dangerously close to courting the Devil, but ultimately can exist in good, moral regions.

In this post I’ve discussed some of the moral and religious themes that Mann brings into Doctor Faustus. In the next I’d like to get into the nature of the art Adrian creates–how it reflects Modernist art at large by radically regressing to pre-Renaissance art to rejuvenate the calcified forms that emerged out of the Renaissance, and how this sentiment, very much a part of Modernist art, mirrored the political ideas animating the fascist movements then overtaking Italy and Germany.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Doctor Faustus I’ve been slowly making my way through Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Despite recently reading proust, Grass, and Kenzaburo Oe, I can pretty easily say that...
  2. More Mann to Come (?) I’m somewhat surprised to see that people seem to have responded rather favorably to my somewhat casually strewn thoughts on Doctor Faustus. They were even...
  3. Friday Column: The Root of All Sources Just a short while ago I finished Gunter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum, a book whose Christ imagery is at points so unequivocal that...
  4. Friday Column: Shostakovich Last Friday, it was my good fortune to attend a performance of three of Dmitri Shostakovich’s pieces at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. The...
  5. Friday Column: Classical Music in Literature Classical music, I have been told, is near death. Similarly, I’ve read in many places (probably written by the same people) of the novel’s imminent...

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1 comment to Friday Column: Mann, Faustus, and the Modernist Morality

  • Justin

    If you’ve read the other versions of the Faust legend, you’ll see that the story of Adrian’s meeting with the mysterious person is much like the meeting with Mephistopheles. His contraction of syphilis is the source of the conjuration of the mysterious figure, and the scene is supposed to mirror Nietzche’s life.

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