by Thomas Mann
“Disease, and most specially opprobrious, suppressed, secret disease, creates a certain critical opposition to the world, to mediocre life, disposes a man to be obstinate and ironical toward civil order, so that he seeks refuge in free thought, in books, in study.” ― Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus
This novel was written between 1943 and 1947 by Thomas Mann. The full title is Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend. The narrator/biographer is Serenus Zeitblom who becomes the best friend of Adrian as a boy, a relationship that continues throughout Adrian's life. Serenus, with asides commenting on his work, details the life and career of Adrian Leverkühn, a preternaturally gifted man who is born into the Germany of the Second Reich in the generation following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The novel follows Leverkühn’s life and career until his death in 1943. Leverkühn is born into a provincial middle-class farming family and has conventional parents, though his father harbors some eccentric scientific interests. Originally attracted to both mathematics and music, Leverkühn goes to college to study theology, a course of study that he eventually abandons in favor of music. Leverkühn’s musical ability is evident from the first and he becomes an accomplished composer.
The most significant aspect of the novel is the use of the Faust legend of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, best known in the dramatic versions by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe. This is portrayed through a dialogue between Leverkühn and the Devil, which occurs in chapter 25. Central to the Faust legend is the contract, the quid pro quo, between the Devil and Faust. The Faustian contract for Leverkühn involves his contracting syphilis from a prostitute. At the price of the loss of his physical and mental health, the syphilis unleashes untold powers of creativity within Leverkühn. One might question whether all artistic geniuses enter into a similar bargain if only metaphorically. Most importantly the Devil requires that Adrian give up the ability to love anyone. This intensifies a solitary life that was already present with Adrian.
The syphilis from which he suffers is, in turn, can also be seen a symbol of the “disease” of extreme nationalism and ethnic chauvinism that eventually led the Germans to embrace Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In both cases—Leverkühn’s contraction of syphilis and the coming to power of Hitler—Mann makes it clear that the parties involved have entered into their “agreements” by their own volition, just as the original Faust entered into his demoniac pact of his own free will. Significantly, Leverkühn’s final composition of his creative career is a cantata titled “The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus.”
Disease was a theme that ran through all of Mann's great works of fiction. Examples include the fate of the author Gustave von Aschenbach in Death in Venice; while in The Magic Mountain, Mann uses physical disease as a symbol for spiritual and cultural decline. Another reference suggested by the presence of syphilis is to Friedrich Nietzsche who contracted the disease and whose life in many ways is mirrored by that of Adrian Leverkuhn. Mann also uses syphilis symbolically to suggest the inevitability of the decline of German civilization. Another connection to Nietzsche is the presence of the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy (Both the sons of Zeus, Nietzsche distinguished the two as opposites: Apollo the god of reason and order, and Dionysus the god of irrationality and chaos.) with Adrian's austerely hyper-rational music symbolizing the rejection of the Dionysian passion of Eros in which he cannot participate.
The narrative relayed by Zeitblom intersperses Adrian'slife events with historical events occurring simultaneously in German politics and society. Leverkühn’s lifetime roughly approximates that of Hitler, the suggesting that the same historical forces that brought the Nazis to the fore had a similar effect on Leverkühn’s art. Leverkühn’s final physical and mental collapse occurs in 1933, the year in which the Nazis came to power in Germany. Leverkühn dies in 1943, a year in which the war in Europe turned decidedly against the Axis Powers, leading to their eventual defeat.
The selection of a composer as the symbol of Germany’s moral and cultural decline is significant in that music is generally regarded as the most German of the arts. One composer, Richard Wagner, held a particular fascination for Mann. Mann had an ambivalent attitude toward Wagner; he greatly admired the composer’s music but was repelled by the man himself. It was Mann’s essay “The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner” that ultimately led to Mann’s public denunciation and eventual exile to America.
Adrian Leverkühn’s daemon, the catalyst whose function it is to see that the protagonist’s fate is fulfilled, appears in many guises, but perhaps never more significantly than in the being of Wendell Kretzschmar, the American expatriate music master and Leverkühn’s only real teacher of composition. Kretzschmar’s significance as a daemon extends not only to Leverkühn’s choice of a career as a composer—it is Kretzschmar who ultimately supplies Leverkühn with the justification to abandon theological studies and return to music—but also to the course that Leverkühn’s musical career will follow.
Leverkühn’s years of theological study at the University of Halle led him to be influenced by several other characters. Professor Kolonat Nonnenmacher instructs Leverkühn in Pythagorean philosophy and reinforces Leverkühn’s long-held fascination with an ordered cosmos, particularly one susceptible to mathematical reduction. Nonnenmacher’s lectures also deal with Aristotelian philosophy and stress the philosopher’s views on the inherent drive to the fulfillment of organic forms—in other words, the urge toward the unfolding of destiny. These lectures have a profound impact on Leverkühn, who comes to the realization that his personal destiny is not necessarily of his own making. Leverkühn finds a different and more subtle version in the form of Ehrenfried Kumpf, Mann’s caricature of Martin Luther. Kumpf’s theology rejects humanism and reason and embraces a rather lusty appreciation of life, including its sensual pleasures, of which music is but one facet. Although Kumpf is a minor figure in the novel, his influence is long-lasting on Leverkühn, who adopts the former’s archaic German phraseology and syntax and who eventually abandons the rationality and “coldness” of theology for the “warmth” of music. Of all Leverkühn’s professors at Halle, none leaves a more permanent impression on Leverkühn’s than Eberhard Schleppfuss, the mysterious theologian whose very difficult lectures combine the tenets of Christianity with a blatant Manichaeanism. Schleppfuss views evil as a necessary concomitant to good and posits a sinister interpretation of the nature of creativity.
Leverkühn’s involvement with music is made permanent, however, only after the liaison with a prostitute named Esmeralda, which, interestingly enough, occurs after Leverkühn has witnessed the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (based on Oscar Wilde’s visionary Decadent drama). This liaison is a curious phenomenon in that neither lust nor intellectual curiosity appears to be its root cause. In many ways, Leverkühn is as irresistibly drawn to the prostitute Esmeralda as the symbolic butterfly hetaera esmeralda (chapter 2) is susceptible to visual or olfactory stimuli. There is a certain inevitability in both cases in which moral laws and the individual will are transcended by reflex actions firmly based in the instinctive domain. Additionally, Leverkühn’s brief sexual encounter permits the appearance in rapid succession of two other influences, namely Dr. Erasmi and Dr. Zimbalist, both of whom are thwarted from treating Leverkühn’s syphilis in its incipient stage.
Leverkühn’s fall is akin to the fall of Adam; both are terrible yet necessary for the evolution of the human condition. One can no more imagine a Christian view of history without Adam’s transgression than a continuation of musical evolution beyond Wagner without the imposition of a seminal figure such as Leverkühn. The connection between Leverkühn and Adam is further strengthened by the fact that one of Leverkühn’s first mature works is a setting of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree,” with its references to the poisoned fruit and the serpent who despoils an altar. In the end, however, as Mann always makes clear in his writings, untempered creativity ultimately consumes its creator. All knowledge, all fruits of artistic genius carry with them a terrible price in the imaginary world of Mann’s fiction.