Various thoughts on the worldviews, music, and endings of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), inspired by studying for my German Comps. Rather longer and more academic than most posts here. The quotations are from the estimable John Woods translations, with occasional edits of my own.
Thomas Mann is the most unflinching of writers. His works, read from the perspective of early 20th-century Europe, are ideological, painful, inescapably overt. They are remarkable because Mann wrote at a time when it was so easy not to be these things–his was the age of surrealism, absurdism, symbol and neo-Romanticism, and many of his contemporaries were falling away from reality. In contrast, his didacticism is refreshing. He poses questions and he answers them.
Works like Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, in particular, belong to this vein. They are what my professor calls “test-tube novels”–all the fixations, terrors, questions, and beauties of a new century thrown together, the results brought under Mann’s lazer-sharp analysis. His characters critique and harangue, propose and debunk.
Der Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, implicitly and explicitly, are works that ask questions about art. What do we do with our artistic past? How do we move forward? Can we create a 20th century work of art–what should it look like? Can we find a solution to the artistic problems of the past century? The novels, I argue, offer two very different sets of answers to these questions.
But first, Thomas Mann and Richard Wagner–the representative artist, in Mann’s mind, of Europe’s artistic past. He located in Wagner’s operas everything that was disturbingly problematic about German Romanticism–the death-drunkenness, the beauty in perversion, the baroque-colossal aesthetics, the sympathy with the abyss. Wagner was the questionable wizard of the past century, whose vast inner landscapes were in essence sick and impure. The apotheosis of these tendencies, of course, was Tristan und Isolde–the most beautiful opera in the world, the love story that in the end did not have to do with the love of the beloved, but rather with the love of death. Wagner’s art is a superlative, Eduard Hanslick wrote. And there can be nothing beyond a superlative.
Philosophically and stylistically, then, Wagner’s was an art without a future. After so much perfection and so much Liebestod, what was left over for the artists of the 20th century?
This is the question that Mann takes up in Der Zauberberg–what is left over? The novel was published in 1924, almost two decades before the horrors of World War II. Here, the answer Mann suggests is inherently humanistic, forward-looking, even cautiously optimistic.
Philosophically, he separates his hero from Wagner’s Todesrausch in the Schnee (Snow) chapter of the work, when Hans Castorp finds himself alone in a storm in the Alps. He dreams, and in his dream Mann constructs a vision of a world that has renounced all sympathy with death, all of Wagner’s love of abyss and annihilation. Der Mensch soll um der Güte und Liebe willen dem Tod keine Herrschaft einräumen über seine Gedanken. For the sake of goodness and love shall mankind grant death no dominion over his thoughts–there, in the single italicized sentence of the entire work, Mann presents the renunciation and defeat of all of Wagner’s philosophy.
In Der Zauberberg, too, Mann offers us a (possible) stylistic paradigm of the new art, a model for the aesthetics of the 20th century: Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum, the Lied for piano and voice that so fascinates Hans later in the story. The piece has everything that Wagner’s operas lack–classicism, humanism, beauty in smallness, self-restraint, hope. The text of the song, while it deals with the possibility of self-destruction, does not end with death and Liebestod, but rather with the thoughtful return to life of the speaker. In Der Zauberberg, Mann’s description of the Lied matches almost exactly his description of the ideal artwork of the 20th century, as sketched out in a brief essay from 1911. A new classicism must come, he wrote–to the artistic future of Germany belonged a clear-headed and upwards-looking art, whose spirituality would be cool and healthy instead of drunken and bombastic.
Profound but logical, deeply-felt but never excessive, Schubert’s Lindenbaum in Der Zauberberg is thus more hopefully modern than anything by Wagner. Unlike Tristan und Isolde, the Lied transcends Romanticism to look towards a constructive future.
Of course–of course, Thomas Mann–this beautiful image is destroyed in the final pages of the novel, or at least called deeply into question. For all the forward-looking hope and resolution of Der Lindenbaum and all the heroism of the conclusions in the Schnee chapter, Hans’ own story does not end so neatly. He leaves the mountain, and, in the chaos of 1914, disappears from sight on a dark and bloody battlefield. Mann does not reveal whether he lives or dies.
On the final pages of the novel, however, Mann again leaves room for optimism. His response to Wagner and the 19th century this time is less tidy, more cautious—bloody historical circumstances are not as forgiving as idealistic philosophizing or Schubertian artistry. But even so, Mann opens the possibility of transcendence. He closes his 900-page novel with a question, itself inherently forward looking in that it demands an answer from the future: “And out of this world-festival of death, out of this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all around–will love someday rise up out of this, too?” Mann addresses both love and death in this final sentence, but unlike Wagner he no longer takes it for granted that they belong together. He leaves us not with Hans’ Liebestod—but with the possibility, however gritty, of love’s ultimate resurrection from death.
And in one final touch of hope, Hans sings as he disappears from sight. The music that struggles to rise above the final pages of the book is not Isolde’s Liebestod, not some epic, backward-looking paean to death and transfiguration, but Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum. It is a piece shot through with death, to be sure, but so is life. What is most important, for Hans and Thomas Mann and Germany itself, is that Schubert does not end with that final surrender.
In the end, what towers above even the most ambiguous passages of the book, as Mann wrote, was “the idea of the human being, the conception of a future humanity that has passed through and survived the profoundest knowledge of disease and death.”* Redemptively humanistic, Mann points to the vital necessity of a spiritual and artistic future where life and love rise above the fascination of death.
So that is Der Zauberberg. What about Doktor Faustus? The book was composed some twenty years after Der Zauberberg, as Mann watched the self-immolation of his country from exile in America. The story is wrenching–composer Adrian Leverkühn sells his soul to the devil (in the form of intentionally contracted syphilis) for twenty-five years of possessed brilliancy, creates, and loses everything in one torturous final scene. All of this is set down by Serenus Zeitblom, Adrian’s childhood friend–an old man, a teacher of Latin, a humanist, full of sorrow and pity and unspeakable horror at the collapse of Germany that parallels that of his friend.
Doktor Faustus still asks the same questions as Der Zauberberg–how do we grapple with our artistic past, how do we look forward towards the future? The answers Mann gives, however, are very different. If Zauberberg is at least cautiously open to optimism, Faustus is inescapably pessimistic. Serenus’ world is one where all art, and Romantic art above all, is its own parody and a lie. The only response to Europe’s artistic heritage seems to be Adrian’s brand of mocking laughter, and the only valid form of expression is satire of a satire of a satire. Descriptors like “pure,” “classical,” and “genuine” are simply outdated.
The idea of a constructive future to follow the 19th century is hardly developed, or even mentioned. There’s one very short conversation towards the end of the novel: as Serenus reports, “The hope was voiced that the youthful 20th century might develop a more elevated and intellectually cheerful frame of mind. The conversation broke apart and exhausted itself in a disjointed discussion of the question of whether there were any signs of that or not.” That is all. There is no hopeful looking-forward, no lofty for the sake of goodness and love. The familiar “20th century as solution” topic fades before it has begun, to the sound of Adrian’s mocking laughter.
And this laughter, this sardonic mockery that permeates the composer’s life and work? This is new response to the artistic past, to Wagner et alia. Irony opposes Romanticism, not pure and lovely “new classicism.” The new creative genius is born of scorn and disease and forever bound to them.
Mann’s treatment of humanism is here also very different from Zauberberg. If Goethe’s Faust is post-Christian, Mann’s is post-humanity. Adrian’s universe is barbarously, scientifically vast, and mankind and his values, puny and transient, are just “a drop in the bucket.” In one of the most excruciating chapters of the work (XXVII), even Serenus, the Classicist and lover of belles lettres, is forced to conclude that his “humanistic Homo Dei, this crown of life, along with his spiritual duty, was therefore presumably the product of marsh-gas fecundity on some neighboring star…the flower of evil.” “That mostly blossoms into evil,” Adrian adds. After all, what place can humanism, with its affirmation of the moral and artistic worth of mankind, have in a world where everything exists to be mocked? Where art lies? Where Europe is falling into an abyss of painful self-annihilation? A philosophy where Man and his creations are genuinely worthy of respect and study is a thing of the past, consigned to same rubbish heap as the quaint geocentric theories of the Dark Ages.
Again, compare the above to Der Zauberberg. In a sense, the book is about humanism. Hans’ Bildung (Education) is essentially humanistic, whatever else it may be. There is something redemptively transfigurative about it, in the end. In Zauberberg‘s world, human creation and ideas may be perilous or lead to death, but they are always more than fodder for parody.
Finally–what about the endings of Faustus and Zauberberg? Interestingly enough, Faustus also closes with questions, with a figure vanishing from sight. In the final paragraph, Serenus gives us personified Germany herself, who “plummets from despair to despair…in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror.” He asks, “When will [Germany] reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of this final hopelessness, will a miracle that goes beyond faith bear the light of hope?”.
But what sort of questions are these? Do they look towards the future for an answer, or only backwards, on the war that has brought horror and debasement? Are they asked by a man entirely despairing of a hopeful answer? A sort of prayer forms the final sentence of the book: “A lonely man folds his hands and says, ‘May God have mercy on your poor soul, my friend, my fatherland” (534). But the speaker is almost broken by disgust and grief, the friend already consecrated to Satan. What else is left?
So it all begs the question: is the query at the end of Zauberberg different? Is it somehow more forward-looking, less despairing? The answer is ambiguous, no doubt. But look at the differing backdrops to these final paragraphs, and examine what has come before the questions. In Faustus, there has been no preceding humanistic Bildung, no talk of dying for the future with the word of love on one’s lips–no talk of a future at all, except to express disgust over the travesty of it all. There has been no coming-of-age, but rather its reversal, a descent to madness. Adrian’s forced return to childhood on the final pages is truly worse than death, this rending of soul from body.
And the music in the last chapter of Dr. Faustus is no melancholy but ultimately life-affirming Schubert Lied, no representative of 20th-century classicism. Instead there is Adrian’s own Lamentation of Dr. Faustus, a gargantuan wail in 12-tone serialism for choir and orchestra, a monstrous work that permits “no consolation, reconciliation, transfiguration.” “It ought not be” is its great leitmotif, felt in every measure and cadence. Adrian’s definitive statement on the work comes some thirty pages from the end of the novel, in one of the most heartbreaking passages in modern literature:
“I have discovered that it ought not be.”
“What ought not be, Adrian?”
“The good and the noble,” he replied, “what people call human, even though it is good and noble. What people have fought for, have stormed citadels for, and what people filled to overflowing have announced with jubilation–it ought not be. It will be taken back. I shall take it back.”
“I don’t quite understand, my dear fellow. What do you want to take back?”
“The Ninth Symphony,’ he replied. And then came nothing more, even though I waited.
Of course Adrian means Beethoven’s Ninth, that forward-looking exposition of joy and humanism, representative of a world purposefully negated in Faustus. As Serenus concludes, “There were years when we children of the dungeon dreamt of a song of joy–Fidelio, the Ninth Symphony–with which to celebrate Germany’s liberation, its liberation of itself. But now only this work can be of any use, and it will be sung from our soul: the lamentation of the son of hell, the most awful lament of man and God ever intoned on this earth, which begins with its central character, but steadily expanding, encompasses, as it were, the cosmos.”
So that is Doktor Faustus. Where does it leave Thomas Mann? At the end of his life, did he believe in art, his own or anyone else’s? Was Adrian’s world, fought against in Zauberberg, at last fully his own? I certainly have no definitive answer to these sorts of questions. Perhaps a clue, though, can be found in his last book, Felix Krull, only partially complete at his death in 1955. It is a return to high comedy, and a focus on mankind’s ability–if not for high nobility and wisdom, then at least for reason, craft, survival.
And of course, there is the very fact that Mann kept writing. Doktor Faustus was not his last book. That in itself–the creative act–is, I think, the most hopeful, inherently humanistic and forward-looking act of which mankind is capable. “It ought not be,” it seems, was Adrian’s motto and not Mann’s own.
*From “The Making of the Magic Mountain”–Mann’s own writings on his magnum opus, a must read.