Monday, April 30, 2018

A Composer's Life: Genius and the Devil

Doctor Faustus 

Doctor Faustus

“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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Apocalyptic Background

The Last Policeman 

The Last Policeman (The Last Policeman, #1)

“tune out the terror and the dread, in a world where the idea of long-term consequences had magically disappeared.”   ― Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman

Sometimes a book spans genres. This is one example where what is primarily a mystery, and an award-winning one, is also a science fiction tale. The setting is in New Hampshire about six months before a large asteroid will collide with the earth. The expectation is that human civilization will be wiped out. Given this background the narrative is told in the first person by rookie Detective Henry (Hank) Palace.

Hank is presented with a case that looks like a suicide, and suicides have begun to occur with some regularity in response to the imminent demise of civilization. But Hank has his doubts and these doubts fuel his determined search for evidence that the subject, and insurance actuary named Peter Zell, was not a suicide but rather the victim of murder. The District Attorney is skeptical but Hank is given a green light to pursue the case wherever is leads. The narrative is fueled by people motivated by the impending disaster, including Hank's sister in a sub-plot, and enough potential suspects to maintain the readers interest. It doesn't hurt that Hank is a reasonable and friendly guy who the reader, this one at least, develops a liking for.

The mystery is well-drawn with plenty of unexpected moments that lead Hank in different directions until his determination leads him to a final answer to his quest. The author's version of a pre-apocalyptic world, one where laws are both absolute and irrelevant, is believable. In it even minor players have major control over what could be a new future. The imminent end of the world doesn’t mean that everyone has shown their hands—just that there’s a lot more at stake if they lose. The result is a satisfying mystery with the added plus (for those like myself) of a science fiction context.  

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Emergence Like a Dream


"And that is close enough to forgiveness, to find that any character in the dream of your life might be you.  But you don't know that until you tell the story; caught in the narrative yourself, how could you see from that height?

Though the firebird can; that's the business of birds, to see from the correcting perspective of above. All along, the firebird watches, patient in ashes, smoldering till the hour to flame.  Just one dance teaches it to believe in the brightness to come.  All it ever needed was a practice run, in preparation for someday's full emblazoning." (p 194)

How well do we know others? Our family, our friends, ourselves? How do we perceive each of these? Through a glass, darkly, or through a perspective box, in a way like an artist. From the opening page of Mark Doty's poetic memoir, Firebird, the theme of art is present.
First it appears in a description of the famous "perspective box" of the Seventeenth-century Dutch painter Samuel Van Hoogstraten. Then as the narrative continues the artistic view and way of life is a theme that provides a way to understand the many colors of Mark's life from his early years to his middle age. He says that "I believe that art saved my life." Whether this happened in his fourth-grade art class or when his poetry first received professional recognition from the surrealist poet who gives of himself to a shy young teenage poet; his introduction to the world of poetry and to an artistic family that, like Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera provides a haunting image of what a family could be but his is not.

It is his family that provides much of the drama of this portrait of a young artist.  This includes a passive/aggressive father who cannot hold on to a job and insists on denuding a teenage Mark's head of its long hair and his mother whose addictive personality leads to storms of emotion so harsh and frequent that Mark "can feel when the storms are brewing" and makes himself scarce.  He copes by exploring various methods of easing his tension from hashish to transcendental meditation. With these and his art he survives the turbulence of such a volatile family life.

I was moved by his gradual recognition and acceptance of his sexuality and the blooming of the artist that would eventually win prizes for his poetry. He withstood the fire of the pressures from his family and grew into a successful artist and firebird who watches his own life emerge like a dream from the elements that made it his own.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Lost Child

Lincoln in the Bardo 

Lincoln in the Bardo

“When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict. When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be?”   
― George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

A couple of decades ago I read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a book that I still remember as being an strikingly funny collection of short stories linked by the titular worn out amusement park. George Saunders wrote that book, but I had not read any of his not unsubstantial writing since then until his latest book and first novel won the Man Booker Prize.

This book, his first true novel, is memorable as well. It depicts a Lincoln trapped in the Bardo (a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the afterlife), namely Willie, the dear 11-year-old son of the great civil war president. As his parents host a lavish state reception, their boy is upstairs in the throes of typhoid fever. Saunders quotes contemporary observers on the magnificence of the feast, trailing the terrible family tragedy that is unfolding. Willie dies and is taken to Oak Hill cemetery, where he is interred in a marble crypt. On at least two occasions – and this is the germ of historical fact from which Saunders has spun his extraordinary story – the president visits the crypt at night, where he sits over the body and mourns.

Saunders tells his tale through use of a polyphonic narrative of the spirits who are trapped in the cemetery that is interleaved with constellations of artfully arranged quotations from primary and secondary sources about Lincoln’s life, which are used to show that observers can be unreliable about the motivations and mental state of the president, and that even such questions as whether the moon shone or not on a particular night can be distorted by memory.

The torrent of quotation, set against the torrent of spirit voices, gives Lincoln in the Bardo the feel of the parts of the Book of the Dead where the soul is beset by wrathful demonic hordes. This cacophony, and the grotesquerie of the deformed spirits, lends the novel a texture that is superficially unlike the work that has made Saunders popular, stories that often play off the tension between a casual vernacular voice and a surreal situation. Lincoln in the Bardo in some ways seemed to have lot in common with the theme park and office space I remember from the author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular the period between death and rebirth are all “bardos”, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death. When someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towards nirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterizes human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body. The Book of the Dead is intended to be read to them during this journey, an instruction manual to assist them on their way.

Some of the characters stand out more than others and there are memorable moments; however the presentation sometimes seems contrived and at times becomes a bit tedious. These moments aside, the brevity of the book and the interesting historical aspects of the story carried this reader forward through a text that was briefer than expected due to the prevalence of white space. The interchange among the "residents" in the cemetery took on the feel of a play, perhaps one like Our Town, although entertaining more for its oddities than its plain wholesomeness.

The combination of a unique authorial style along with a multitude of historical details made this a historical novel that I would recommend to all interested in the history of this era. It is certainly a presentation of a moment from Abraham Lincoln's life that is different than any I have ever previously encountered.