Mythology · Psychology

Exploring Faust: Thomas Mann and the End of the West

We’ve been exploring the development of Faust and how the myth has changed over the centuries. Last time we covered Goethe’s version, the favourite because it paints our obsession with progress as a good thing. The world has changed a lot since it was written and we can now see where that obsession has brought us. We need a new version of the Faust myth for the modern age. Enter Thomas Mann.

Thomas Mann’s Faust is very different to the earlier versions. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend was written during the second world war and published in 1947. In The Cry for Myth, Rollo May says Mann describes the “destructive power and despair present in the myths of Faust” and found its ultimate form in the context of the war.

As a German, Mann was horrified by the destruction of his country. His wife was Jewish and they were able to escape the Nazis by fleeing to Switzerland and then to the US. The novel emphasises the cultural destruction of the Western world and includes biographical details from the lives of Nietzsche and Schoenberg, the creator of atonality and serialism in music.

Doctor Faustus is complex, with layers of symbolism, and difficult to read – I tried and gave up! Chapter 25 is worth struggling through for the ‘debate’ between Adrian and the devil – you can read the book here. Doctor Faustus uses the Faust legend as an allegory for the rise of Nazism in Germany and criticises the materialism of the middle class and the loss of culture. It explores the nature of power and progress and what happens when your colossal ego gets out of control.

The story is about the life and work of Adrian Leverkühn, a composer and inventor of the 12-tone scale, as told by his childhood friend. Adrian studies theology, like all the Faust figures before him, but gives it up for music. He showed great promise for musical genius early in life, and deliberately contracted syphilis to increase his genius.

The devil appears in his room after Adrian has been suffering with a migraine and is reading about Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a Faust-like tale. They have a long chat – very one-sided, with the devil doing most of the talking. The devil reveals that Adrian already made a deal when he got himself infected – a Faustian bargain – and he’s now closing the deal. He offers to sell Adrian some time: 24 years of musical success in exchange for love:

“Love is forbidden you, in so far as it warms. Thy life shall be cold, therefore thou shalt love no human being. … A general chilling of your life and your relations to men lies in the nature of things – rather it lies already in your nature; in faith we lay upon you nothing new, the little ones make nothing new and strange out of you, they only ingeniously strengthen and exaggerate all that you already are.”

As he talks, the devil keeps changing shape, like Proteus who you have to pin down to get him to tell the truth. The way the devil talks reminded me of how your mind races, going round and round and arguing with itself. In fact, Adrian claims the devil only says things that are already in himself.

Perhaps he’s hallucinating and the devil is a symptom of his fevered subconscious, raging and confirming to himself that he’s damned. It certainly reads like it’s all in his head, especially how the chapter ends. However, the devil does effectively say that just because you’re imagining me, doesn’t mean I’m not real.

During their meeting, the devil discusses, mostly with himself, the terrible state of the culture and the difficulty of composing great music and how nobody believes in religion anymore. The nihilism in Europe that Nietzsche predicted following the death of God has finally come to pass, as Rollo May says:

“The chief symptom of the twentieth century, the age of the despair and dissolution Mann has described, is the trivialisation of art. … This is the proof of the work of the devil; it is a gnawing away at the soul of modern culture.”

Classical music, as it developed in European cultures, used to express the highest values of Western civilisation. This started to change with the rise of Romanticism in the 19th century when music and the arts began to focus more on the self-expression of the individual artist or composer. The classical forms disintegrated and our connection with divine inspiration was lost. In The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says:

“The difference between Beethoven and his successors, one might jokingly observe, was that Beethoven believed in God, Brahms believed in Beethoven and Wagner believed in Wagner. But in this declension we can also see the essence of what was happening in the nineteenth century to Western man’s relationship with the instinctive totality of the Self.”

The Self being our connection to the divine. The descent into nihilism led to the collapse of perspectives, and the arts moved away from classical and traditional forms into Modernism at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The arts then became increasingly fragmented, alienated, and stripped of meaning.

In Microcosm and Medium, Joseph P Farrell says that modernism represents a collapse into solipsism and self-referentiality:

“In effect, it is a complete divorce from all culture, that is, from all that is humanising and psychologically integrative. Indeed, such extreme self-referentiality, if translated from the cultural to the clinical contexts, would be considered dissociative and sociopathic.”

In the novel, Adrian has completely given himself over to this empty culture. He gave up God for the rationalism of modern music, the serialism of Schoenberg. Farrell can’t stand Schoenberg and gives his “music” inverted commas. He says serialism isn’t about beauty or transcendence, it’s political:

“Schoenberg believed that the natural harmonic series with its nature-given hierarchical order of notes and harmonic relationships was…in a sense merely a matter of cultural and stylistic taste, and that music, if it was to reflect the egalitarian and socialist goals of modern progress, had to reflect this…”

So each note is considered to have equal importance, totally ignoring the natural harmonic series that’s contained within the notes themselves.

“Thus, [Schoenberg] developed completely artificial rules of composition to counteract and contradict that natural order and the innate human response to it.”

I had a go at ‘composing’ using the techniques of serialism when I was at music college many years ago, and I can’t say anything positive about it. Everything sounded the same – fragmented and disjointed. Adrian probably would’ve approved, in his own sardonic manner.

trivialisation and commercialisation go hand in hand

This version of Faust is completely secular. To Adrian, there’s no hope and nothing matters. The culture is already dead and art is meaningless. Which begs the question: Why desire to reach creative genius in that context? What would it even mean? There’s some discussion about God and the hope for transcendence or salvation, but Adrian concludes that he is damned.

During his chat with the devil, Adrian states that salvation only comes from true contrition and that comes only when the sinner believes they can’t be saved – contrition without hope. By the end of the novel, Adrian confesses his deal with the devil and says he’s been carrying on “an atrocious competition with the Goodness above”, almost daring God to forgive him, no matter how bad his behaviour.

He rambles incoherently and it’s clear he’s now insane (or more insane than he was before), and the syphilis has taken hold. Adrian collapses at the piano and can’t perform the great work he has just finished. He ends his days in an asylum, dribbling and insensible.

Adrian admits that he hates his final score, saying, it allows “no consolation, reconciliation, transfiguration” and that “it ought not be.” He tells his friend that all that’s good and noble about humanity should be wiped out, and that he wants to take back Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, i.e. the glorious Ode to Joy. Nihilism has consumed him and there’s no hope for redemption.

However, the final lines of Adrian’s great work long for the grace that comes from silence (beyond the intellect and rationality):

“For listen to the end, listen with me: one group of instruments after another retires, and what remains, as the work fades on the air, is the high G of a cello, the last word, the fainting sound … Then nothing more: silence, and night. But that tone which vibrates in the silence, which is no longer there, to which only the spirit hearkens, and which was the voice of mourning, is no more. It changes its meaning; it abides as a light in the night.”

The novel ends with a lamentation about the destruction of Germany and describes Hitler and the Nazis as a “monstrous national perversion.” The overwhelming despair is clear. Mann cries out, asking how much worse things will get and praying for mercy for his country:

“Today, clung round by demons, a hand over one eye, with the other staring into horrors, down she flings from despair to despair. When will she reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of uttermost hopelessness – a miracle beyond the power of belief – will the light of hope dawn? A lonely man folds his hands and speaks: ‘God be merciful to thy poor soul, my friend, my Fatherland!’”

This is what happens when an entire culture embraces negation.

me listening to Schoenberg

The devil stands for the negating aspect of life, as Mephistopheles states in Goethe’s Faust, that he is: “Part of the power that would always wish evil, and always works the good.” The devil in Mann’s Doctor Faustus references this, saying:

“Have you forgotten what you learned in the schools, that God can bring good out of evil?”

The devil is that which says no to life, and yet he claims that real creativity comes from him. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?! But the devil can only imitate. However, life would be impossible without the act of negation and we can’t create without the ability to say no and choose between options. When you create, you defeat the devil and overcome the negation – an example of good coming out of evil.

Adrian embraces the devil thinking it will make him a genius, but it destroys him. His genius comes from his disease, and Mann seems to argue that creativity thrives on illness. This is the kind of creativity that comes from the ego rather than the soul, and is a product of a sick society, as Rollo May says:

“The whole novel is about the illness of the twentieth century. It requires us to rethink the meaning of health in a declining civilisation and to reconsider how we use our great progress in medicine. For the sickness which Mann (and Hesse in Steppenwolf before him) are talking about is a spiritual illness.”

If Adrian represents Germany, the Faustian character has become Germany itself, which can also represent Western civilisation as a whole. The destruction of Germany from within and without in the 1930s and 40s was a great shock to many, although Nietzsche saw it coming. Germany had been the source of great art, philosophy and science, but then it went mad and crashed and burned. Rollo May again:

“This Germany was the Icarus which soared to its too great height – and fell to its grizzly death and destruction in Nazism.”

The implication is that the rise of Nazism was inevitable on the back of its previous cultural history. Perhaps something got repressed along the way and it burst back out in an orgy of destruction – something that can happen when the ego gets inflated by archetypal content from the unconscious. Jung warned about this in his 1936 essay on the rise of Wotan in the German psyche.

The question is: what has been repressed in the psyche of Western civilisation? And what will happen when it bursts back out? Who is the Faust of the 21st century? We’ll explore that next time

Read the whole Faust series here

Images: Poser; Scream; Orlac

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