60 years of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus

One of the very dark modern novels, and understandably so, is Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus written in 1947 and first published in English in 1948. Based on the medieval myth about Dr. Faustus and his pact with the devil, Mann trans creates it in the backdrop of Nazi Germany’s “pact with the devil.” A thick, dense novel it also uses music as an allegory. The novel is in the tradition of German writers and their fascination with philosophy. What I did not know till I read Urich Grothus’ review of the novel on its 60th anniversary is that it was based on Adorno’s book Philosophy of the New Music and that Adorno himself reviewed the manuscript of the novel “that makes you believe to hear music that actually has never been composed.” Also insightful are the reviewer’s observations on the place of philosophy and music in contemporary Germany where its fascination with irrational- ism seems to have vanished and interest in philosophy declined.

This is a novel about music. Mann’s main musical advisor in writing the novel was Theodor Adorno, one of the founders of critical theory, who had studied composition with Alban Berg, one of Schönberg’s first followers. Adorno saw atonal, dissonant, and polyphonic music as the only progressive way for the further development of musical material and as the adequate musical expression of the contradictions of advanced capitalist societies. Adorno was less convinced of the constraints that the twelve tone system imposes on the creative process, in that it prescribes literally every tone that may be used at a given place in the composition.

When I read the novel again last summer, I was thinking: What has remained of the Germany that Mann described in so desperate and still so loving terms, and what has changed? Germany is very different today, it would seem to me. Of course, the unparalleled crimes committed by Germans under the Nazi regime, are, and will forever be, central to the German collective memory. Any sign of renascent racism there is taken more seriously, at home and around the world, than in most other countries, and rightly so.

Still, the strain of irrationalism that Mann describes and that was so fraught with disaster has all but vanished in contemporary German culture. It would even seem that the national obsession with philosophy has ceased altogether. In the former “land of poets and thinkers”, philosophy has become the specialty of a small profession. 95 per cent of German university graduates of my, or the younger, generation, have probably never read a philosophical book, and if so, it was mostly Foucault, Habermas or Marx. Most books by Martin Heidegger, Germany’s most influential and most compromised philosopher in the 20th century, are not even available in paperback, for lack of popular demand. The love and high esteem of music, however, seems to have survived. Nearly half of the world’s opera houses, I am told, are in Germany – and mainly play Italian opera. There are good reasons to believe that, finally, democracy in Germany has been the success that Thomas Mann, in Zeitblom’s words, had already hoped for during the Weimar Republic. “It was an attempt, a not utterly and entirely hopeless attempt (the second since the failure of Bismarck and his unification performance) to normalize Germany in the sense of Europeanizing or “democratizing’ it, of making it part of the social life of peoples.”

While on the theme of novels about (Western classical) music; here is the review of a more recent work; Romanian author Dumitru Tsepeneag’s novel Vain Art of the Fugue.


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

5 thoughts on “60 years of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus”

  1. Thanks for this.

    Fans of Mann (particularly fans of The Magic Mountain) should check out Pawel Huelle’s playful and charming TMM-prequel Castorp (shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize)…

  2. Thanks for the ref to Pawel Huelle, I hadn’t heard of him till now, and seems wont be able to read Castrop till it is translated into English (google search threw up a lot of links that look like German/ Polish) 😦

    Castrop is already translated into English and is available at amazon and at your site….thanks !

  3. I think it is nothing short of a cosmic catastrophe that the great refined cultural traditions of Germany and greater Europe are all but lost in today’s world. However, maybe the efforts of people like us will propel a resurgent awakening of the Faustian Man, The Gyntian Man, The Quixotic Man in short all the noble, serious and profound expressions of the western European traditions. Of all these The Germanic, French, Spanish and classical Greek are among my favorites but the Germans are very dear to my heart and I am not even German! Durer, Goethe, Hoffmann, Novalis, Hesse, Nietszche, Shoepenhauer, Rilke, Holblein, Hartmann, Heideiger, I love them all, Hail the mighty Deutchland – Wier commen weider!!!
    Thomas Mann telling us a cautionary tale in Dr Faustus that traces all those social upheavals that marked the transition between Weimar Germany and the atrocities of the Nazi party. He did it by using music as his aesthetic material. If in The Magic Mountain he developed a style of prose that was an “excursus on the sense of time” in which the rhythms of his prose broke with the traditional conventions of novelistic storytelling in order to grasp the polyphonic rhythms of time, memory, dreams etc… In Doctor Faustus, music and it’s celestial language(Melancholia- Durer chapter 7) becomes the main formal feature of his prose rhythms.

    1. My reading of German literature is very limited- some of the key works of Goethe and Mann and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Man. I have to admit that while I admire most of the works I have read, I find them to be unnecessarily long and often dreary.

  4. I find D D Kosambi’s post most cogent and elucidatory. That the narrative is so closely intertwined with the intricacies of western classical music makes it difficult for one unfamiliar with these to get the full meaning of the story.The cathartic nature of the story and the suggested parallels between Adrain and Jesus universalize the story of the musician, and make it worthwhile to read the densely written and rather long novel.

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