The International Literary Quarterly

May 2009

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Culture and barbarism: Doctor Faustus, modernism and the rise of fascism by Christine Simon  

Few writers of historical fiction can have been as ambitious as Thomas Mann, whose stated aim in his novel Doctor Faustus was ‘to write nothing less than the novel of my era, disguised as the story of an artist’s life’.1 His ‘biography’ of the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn represents the situation of the artist at a particular juncture of history and stands allegorically for the plight of Mann’s Germany. Although the original conception for the story of ‘the syphilitic artist: as Doctor Faust who has sold himself to the Devil’ dates from 1905,2 by the time Mann came to take up the idea for Doctor Faustus, both his outlook and the world around him had changed. The original idea, overlaid with historical and political concerns, came to incorporate an exploration of the rise of Nazism while retaining the theme of the artist’s predicament in the modern period.  Either of these subjects could form the basis of a substantial novel; the result is a work which defies categorisation, containing interwoven elements of history, social realism, biography and autobiography, allegory and myth.


Mann’s interposition between himself and his subject of an intermediate narrator, the inexperienced biographer Serenus Zeitblom, does not preclude the use of some carefully-selected narrative techniques which enable the seamless interweaving of history with the other elements of the novel. 

The use of the Faust myth, as well as enabling the symbolic pairing of Faust with Germany and with Leverkühn, creates a link between three significant points in German cultural history3, spanning the era labelled by Zeitblom as ‘the epoch of bourgeois humanism’.4 The original Faust of the 1587 chapbook can be seen as a Renaissance man whose pact with the devil signals the increasing power of rational, secular enquiry over the control of the church. The culmination of post-Renaissance culture is represented by Goethe’s Faust (Part I, 1808; Part II, 1832), who also stands for its main branches of learning5. Mann’s own version of the bedevilled magus, Adrian Leverkühn, is located in what his creator saw as the nadir of Western civilisation: a decadent age which has bred all manner of foul ideologies. This structure is reinforced by Adrian Leverkühn’s conscious modelling of his life on that of the chapbook Faust and by subtle references to Goethe in the text. The devil situates Leverkühn’s pact within this historical context when he compares the artistic possibilities of past and present: ‘What he in his classical decades could have without us, certainly, that, nowadays, we alone have to offer’ (p. 241).

Much of the representation of history in Doctor Faustus turns on Mann’s handling of time. The use of Zeitblom enabled a narration on two time planes, which Mann called ‘double time’ (Genesis, p. 119). This is now a common device in historical fiction; it was less so in the 1940s when Mann was writing. Zeitblom’s biography of his friend Leverkühn spans the period from 1885 to 1940, but this life story is interspersed with reports and comments on the events of World War II during the period in which Zeitblom is writing: from May 1943 to April 1945. In chapter 33, the biographical narrative has reached the fall of Germany at the end of World War I, but Zeitblom begins his chapter with an account of the impending fall of Germany in 1944:

The time of which I write was for us Germans an era of national collapse, of capitulation, of uprisings due to exhaustion, of helpless surrender into the hands of strangers. The time in which I write, which must serve me to set down these recollections here in my silence and solitude, this time has a horribly swollen belly, it carries in its womb a national catastrophe compared with which the defeat of those earlier days seems a moderate misfortune, the sensible liquidation of an unsuccessful enterprise. (Doctor Faustus, p. 343)

This counterpoint between writer and subject, between time depicted and time of depiction, which echoes the nature of history itself, allows not only the interpolation into the novel of Zetiblom’s outraged and despairing comments on fascism and the Second World War (with a vehemence and a simplicity which would have been difficult for Mann the sophisticated man of letters) but, more subtly, a comparison by juxtaposition of his present time with the events of the period narrated in the biography, allowing the one to comment on and enlighten the other. The Nazi Germany of Zeitblom’s present is the product of those years of the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic which form the subject of his biography; but this is implied rather than stated, shown rather than explained. It is, in fact, though Mann does not define it as such, an instance of montage.

At the same time, this device – the interweaving of Leverkühn’s life and times and those of his biographer – underpins Leverkühn’s symbolic function.  Chapter 33 continues with a discussion of the humiliation of Germany following the end of World War I, after which the narrative swings back to Leverkühn in 1918: ‘Leverkühn … was unusually ailing at this time, in a way that had something humiliating in its torments’ (p. 343). This parallel runs through the novel; Leverkühn’s mental and physical health mirrored by and mirroring the condition of Germany, till the final end of both: the defeat of Germany, the collapse, insanity and death of Leverkühn.

Earlier, in chapter 26, the ingenuous Zeitblom comments on this layering of time:

I do not know why this double time-reckoning arrests my attention or why I am at pains to point out both the personal and the objective, the time in which the narrator moves and that in which the narrative does so. This is a quite extraordinary interweaving of time-units, destined, moreover, to include even a third: namely, the time which one day the courteous reader will take for the reading of what has been written; at which point he will be dealing with a threefold ordering of time: his own, that of the chronicler, and historic time. (p. 256)

This passage could be read as a paradigm of the historical novel in general, to which each generation of readers brings the shifting interpretations of its own time, and of those novels written in a dual time-frame in particular.  In fact, the ‘historic time’ in Doctor Faustus is not limited to the period from 1885 to 1940, but includes also a panorama of German history, stretching back to the late Middle Ages, sketched out and alluded to throughout the novel. This is Zeitblom’s ‘epoch of bourgeois humanism’, the decline of which is described and discussed throughout the novel:

I felt that an epoch was ending, which had not only included the nineteenth century, but gone far back to the end of the Middle Ages, to the loosening of scholastic ties, the emancipation of the individual, the birth of freedom. (p. 359)

One of the ways in which this sense of ‘historic time’ is established is through the loci of the novel. Halle, Leipzig and Munich, cities in which Adrian Leverkühn lives, are significant in Germany’s theological, musical and political history. Kaisersaschern, the fictitious little town where Zeitblom and Leverkühn were born and from whose influence Leverkühn can, significantly, never quite escape, functions as a symbol of Germanness. A historic town which ‘had kept a distinctively mediaeval air’, in Zeitblom’s childhood it was ‘practical, rational, modern’ (p. 34), its mediaeval characteristics superseded by modern enlightened virtues. But the past here prefigures later developments, just as the ‘crude instruments of torture’ (p. 33) in the town’s museum are not only vestiges of a less enlightened age, but a reminder that beneath the surface lurks an older, unenlightened, psychology which predates Zeitblom’s humanism. It is precisely, implies Zeitblom, this völkisch (folkish) and archaic layer of the German psyche, easily roused to ‘deeds of sinister significance’ (p. 35), which has aided the rise of fascism. It is significant also that the devil, appearing to Leverkühn in 1911 or 1912,6 characterises their shared world as ‘pure Kaisersaschern, good old German air, from anno MD or thereabouts’ (p. 235).  It is no coincidence, either, that this meeting with the devil takes place in a sixteenth-century house in the ancient town of Palestrina, birthplace of the eponymous composer whose work forms part of the heyday of counterpoint, that technique which characterises western music from the late Middle Ages and which Leverkühn is about to abolish.

Mann is adept at throwing into his narrative subtle and complex references which serve to reinforce the novel’s sense of history. In the description of Adrian Leverkühn’s work room at Pfeiffering, mention is made of a Savonarola chair which stands at his work table (p. 261). Though deceptively simple, this reference is nonetheless highly significant. The Savonarola chair is an antique form and thus stands for the past. But of the various names by which it can be known (X-chair, scissors-chair, Dante chair, Luther chair, Savonarola chair) Mann chose ‘Savonarola’, thus conjuring an array of historical references. Savonarola, notorious for his religious and political zeal, his anti-humanist stance, his book burnings and destruction of what he saw as immoral art, carries sinister resonances for an opponent of Hitler who had witnessed the Nazi book burnings of 1933 and the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibitions of 1937.  The reference, however, is equivocal, since it is underlaid with the notion of Savonarola’s opposition to what he saw as a corrupt regime. Subtle references of this sort abound, but they are not laboured; Mann expects much of his reader.

Music in Doctor Faustus is ‘only a paradigm for something more general, only a means to express the situation of art in general, of culture, even of man and the intellect itself in our so critical era’ (Genesis, p. 37); nonetheless, the history of western music is treated in detail, and runs through Doctor Faustus like the history of Germany. In the lectures of Kretschmar and the conversations between Zeitblom and Leverkühn, the reader is presented with the development from monody (monophony) to polyphony, the seminal innovations of Beethoven and the consequent difficulty of creating anything new, the development of chromaticism and the problematic nature of Wagner’s music. This leads on to Leverkühn’s development of the twelve-tone system, and to a body of work which, though it reflects the Zeitgeist, also encapsulates the history of western music, of which it is both the culmination and the overturning.

Doctor Faustus is ‘embedded … in the pressure and tumult of outward events’ (Genesis, p. 9-10). Characteristically, this statement describes both the narrative itself and the process of writing it. Zeitblom puts pen to paper to begin the biography of Adrian Leverkühn on 23 May 1943, the same day on which Mann started to write Doctor Faustus. 7 The events which formed a backdrop to Mann’s writing of the novel become Serenus Zeitblom’s ‘time in which I write’. This is typical of what Mann called his ‘montage technique’ (Genesis, p. 29), by which he means the mixing of real events and characters into the fictional narrative. ‘I was constantly amazed,’ he wrote, ‘by the way its [the novel’s] fantastic mechanisms drew upon factual, historical, personal, and even literary data. As in the “panoramas” shown in my childhood, palpable reality was for ever indistinguishably merging into painted perspectives and illusion’ (Genesis, p. 29). To some extent this process is inherent in the writing of fiction, although Mann does seem to have taken the borrowing from reality – and other sources –  to extremes. His research for the novel, detailed in Genesis, was vast, wide-ranging and eclectic. It covered both written and human sources (he relied heavily on Theodor Adorno, a fellow German exile and at that time a neighbour of Mann’s in California, to advise on musical matters) and was both planned and circumstantial; he asked questions, wrote letters, read books, but also made use of chance findings. The project ‘arrogated for its own purposes all that reality brought my way’ (Genesis, p. 25).

What Mann calls montage includes the covert use of historically attested characters. Adrian Leverkühn is so closely connected with Nietzsche, in terms both of life events (the brothel incident and subsequent syphilitic infection, the manic-depressive moods) and of ideology (the problem of the modern artist, burdened with an excess of knowledge, no longer able to follow traditional paths and thus forced to create works which exploit the primitive) that Nietzsche cannot appear in the novel as an autonomous historical character (Genesis, p. 30). The same is true of Schönberg, since Leverkühn ‘invents’ Schönberg’s twelve-tone system. Such borrowings, or ‘theft from reality’ (Genesis, p. 32), as Mann called them, are historically accurate but take on meanings of their own in the novel. Leverkühn’s knowing infection with syphilis – he disregards Esmeralda’s warnings about her infected state (p. 157) – is drawn from Nietzsche’s life8, but it becomes part of Leverkühn’s self-modelling on Faust and is seen as the vehicle for both his creative success and his final collapse. The twelve-tone system, a way out of the paradoxical restrictions of post-Romantic individual freedom, becomes a solution to the artist’s dilemma, but one which, in its leaning towards the over-ordered, fascistic and barbaric, echoes Germany’s political solution.

Mann incorporated into Doctor Faustus significant elements of his own experience, thus creating an overlap between personal and political history. The depiction of German society in the first half of the twentieth century owes some of its cogency to the fact that Adrian Leverkühn’s formative period was Mann’s own. The semi-bohemian circles of Munich, the problems of artistic creation, the experience of life during the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic, are all mined from his own past. Clarissa Rodde’s suicide is drawn from that of one of Mann’s sisters, the angelic child Echo is closely (and courageously) based on the author’s favourite grandson. This borrowing from reality, which underpins the conventional realism of the novel and contributes to its verisimilitude, also provides a detailed picture of the cultural roots of Nazism amongst the middle classes.

Mann’s use of a narrator allows the life-story of Adrian Leverkühn to be filtered through the pen of the mild, earnest and sometimes unintentionally comic humanist scholar Serenus Zeitblom. The themes of the novel – the Faust myth and the pact with the devil, the rise of Nazism, music and the predicament of the artist in the modern age – are all played out through Leverkühn; Zeitblom is the powerless onlooker to both his friend’s tragedy and that of Germany. This narrative dichotomy is symbolic of Germany: the old-style rational, cultured humanism versus the new, tortured national psychology which has made a pact with its own devil, Hitler. But at the same time it represents the author’s divided self.9 Mann does not stand aloof from his country’s historical catastrophe; on the contrary, he recognises that it was something in which he had himself participated. Doctor Faustus is in part an exploration of his own complicity, bound up with the artistic problems of the early years of the twentieth century. Mann had noted in 1938 that he himself possessed the ‘tendencies of the time, in the air long before the word “Fascist” existed’ and that they ‘served its moral preparation. I had them in me as much as anyone’.10 It was ideas such as these, expressed by Mann in his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, written during the First World War, which led to the dispute with his brother Heinrich; a reconciliation took place only after Thomas had abandoned the possibility of being non-political.

For Mann, the cultural had become political; there is an implication that the social decline and the disaster of Germany’s descent into Nazism are not only inevitable and parallel, but causally connected. ‘Certainly in Germany, so he [Mann] would write after the German catastrophe, … [the] spiritual, cultural, emotional impulse – was the prime moving force, and political action only came after, as its expression and instrument.’11  Mann concentrates not on the big ‘forward step which history has taken’, but on its ‘reflexes in everyday life’12. He places less emphasis on a textbook analysis of Hitler’s rise to power – we are not presented with the Beer Hall Putsch or jackboots goose-stepping through Berlinthan on its underlying cultural, psychological and intellectual roots. The personal stories of the Rodde daughters and of Rudi Schwerdtfeger are tragic endings symptomatic of ‘the final stage of a society’ (Genesis p. 107) and are prefigured by Zeitblom’s liberal use of prolepsis, lending the narrative a sense of inevitable doom and imbuing both personal and political events with the same relentless fatality.

But Mann’s historical analysis is always, however loosely, a function of his characters and their situations; from the student discussions at Halle to the  conversations of the Kridwiss circle, it is knitted into the narrative. A telling example is provided early in the novel, when Zeitblom muses on the relationship between the intellectual and the daemonic. He was first struck by the daemonic as a necessary element of culture during his youthful travels in Greece:

When from the Acropolis I looked down upon the Sacred Way on which the initiates marched, adorned with the saffron band, with the name of Iacchus on their lips; again, when I stood at the place of initiation itself, … I experienced by divination the rich feeling of life which expresses itself in the initiate veneration of Olympic Greece for the deities of the depths; often, later on, I explained to my pupils that culture is in very truth the pious and regulating, I might say propitiatory entrance of the dark and uncanny into the service of the gods. (pp. 7-8)

Though there is much of importance here, it is understated, slipped in amongst the apparently rambling memories of an old man. The uneasy relationship between the rational and the daemonic is seen to be historically rooted in the western mind. This reference is central to the novel: in Zeitblom’s view, one of the significant problems of modern Germany is that it has let in too much of the ‘dark and uncanny’, at the expense of the reasoned and intellectual; but it is a typically oblique reference. 

Zeitblom’s ‘uncanny’ in this quotation is undoubtedly a reference to Freud’s concept of the uncanny (das Unheimliche). The uncanny is that which arouses fear or unease because it contains elements which are both known and unknown. Freud notes, through the development of the word heimlich from ‘homely’ to ‘concealed’, the semantic shift by which heimlich (‘familiar’ or ‘homely’) comes to mean its opposite (unfamiliar, uncanny); it ‘becomes increasingly ambivalent, until it finally merges with its antonym unheimlich’.13 Freud suggests that the sense of the uncanny derives from the resurgence of repressed impressions or ideas: either childhood complexes (in the individual) or primitive beliefs long since superseded by reason (in a society or a culture).14 We may see here a parallel with Adrian Leverkühn’s ambiguous music, in which a primitive and barbaric element resurfaces despite its highly rational nature; and with the Nazis’ deliberate exploitation of archaic, völkisch beliefs.

Zeitblom, now an old man facing the destruction of Germany, makes a further reference to the ancient world, in a bitterly ironic comment on the short duration of Hitler’s Reich:

Our ‘thousand-year’ history, refuted, reduced ad absurdum, weighed in the balance and found unblest, turns out to be a road leading nowhere, or rather into despair, an unexampled bankruptcy, a descensus Averno lighted by the dance of roaring flames. (p. 462)

Aeneas’ ‘descensus Averno’15 was a journey back into the past – to consult his dead father, Anchises – and into the future: Anchises would enlighten his son on the nature of his destiny. This connection of past and future is part of the overall substance of Doctor Faustus, but also interesting here is the layering of concepts: the juxtaposition of the classical underworld – a place in which good and evil are mixed – with the flames of the Christian hell – an unequivocal place of punishment for the wicked. We might connect this juxtaposition and progression of ideas with Zeitblom’s concept of the ‘daemonic’, quoted above. Although there is no distinction in Doctor Faustus between the ‘daemonic’ and the ‘demonic’, there exists in the use of the word ‘daemonic’ an implied degeneration, from the ‘daemonic’ as a dangerous but necessary component of the intellectual life, artistic genius included (one thinks of Socrates’ guiding spirit), to the ‘demonic’ evil of fascism. However unavoidable or necessary the ‘daemonic’ may be, both Leverkühn and Germany, in their combination of the primitive and the radically modern, have slipped into the ‘demonic’.

Fascism, however, was not the only system in the first half of the twentieth century to exploit the ‘dark and uncanny’, the primitive and the equivocal. The artist’s life as exemplified by Adrian Leverkühn may on one level be a vehicle for Mann’s socio-political analysis, but it is nonetheless a major constituent of the novel in its own right. For, in addition to investigating Germany’s political crisis and her descent into Nazism, Doctor Faustus is an exploration of the era’s particular artistic problems, which can be summed up in the word ‘modernism’. The juncture of history at which Mann’s Faustus finds himself was critical not just for politics but for the arts too. ‘Why does almost everything seem to me like its own parody?’ Leverkühn asks of his mentor Kretschmar at the decisive point in his career, when he is about to abandon theology (which he had taken up in an attempt to escape the need for parody) for musical composition. ‘Why must I think that almost all, no, all the methods and conventions of art today are good for parody only?’ (p. 135). This expression of the difficulty of making art in 1905 is met, in Kretschmar’s reply paraphrased by Zeitblom, with an even clearer statement of the problems:

Art needed just his sort today [...] [Leverkühn’s temperament] belonged only in part to the private personality; for the rest it was of an extra-individual nature, the expression of a collective feeling for the historical exhaustion and vitiation of the means and appliances of art, the boredom with them and the search for new ways. (p. 136)

It is against this background, then, that Leverkühn’s musical career and his pact with the devil are played out. Living during the period of what may be called ‘high modernism’, Leverkühn faces, broadly speaking, the same artistic problems as Joyce and Kafka, Mondrian and Duchamp. With the exhaustion and consequent unacceptability of traditional forms, few choices are left: parody, which is equally unacceptable; the destructive abolition of traditional forms, as in Dada; or the creation of radically new ones. Adrian Leverkühn’s breakthrough, the twelve-tone system, is just such a radically new form. This highly rational and intellectual method, which removes from the process of composition a great deal of problematic subjectivity as well as the traditional need for tonality, places its creator firmly within the modernist camp.

But Leverkühn’s position as an exemplar of extreme modernism is at odds with his allegorical function. His career runs parallel to the recent history of Germany; his pact with the devil, period of creativity and subsequent madness are also hers; but this is no one-sided correspondence. Paradoxically, Leverkühn’s music would doubtless have met the same fate as that of its actual creator, Schönberg; in Nazi Germany atonal compositions were classed as entartete Musik (degenerate music) and their performance banned. Indeed, one of the reasons that Zeitblom gives for desiring German defeat in the war is that this is the only way his friend’s music will be able to see the light of day (p. 28).

The opposition between these two readings of Leverkühn is nowhere more apparent than in Zeitblom’s discussion of his friend’s Apocalypsis cum figuris. This masterpiece is specifically connected, through the intertwining narratives which comprise the three sections of chapter 34, with the proto-fascist ideas of the Kridwiss circle meeting in Munich in the 1920s: the need, enforced by the decline of bourgeois humanism, for an alternative ideology, one which sees itself as ultra-modern and which combines an element of Social Darwinism with the control of the masses by barbarism and primitive ‘mythical fictions’ (p. 373). Yet, though it epitomises those ideas, the Apocalypsis  is a complex avant-garde work, such as would have been vilified by the members of the Kridwiss circle.  It is in fact largely misunderstood, and incurs ‘the reproach both of blood-boltered barbarism and of bloodless intellectuality!’ (p. 381).    

This complex linkage and opposition of ideas is underscored by a simile used by Zeitblom in describing both the new ideology and the Apocalypsis cum figuris. In this work, musical conventions have moved full circle, so that dissonance stands for spirituality and pure harmony for hell. (Similarly, the buildings of Auschwitz made use of classical symmetry; a fact used by the artist Kitaj, in whose ‘If Not, Not’ the Auschwitz gatehouse in the background forms a startling contrast with what Kitaj called the ‘scattered fragments’ in the rest of the picture.16) Zeitblom uses this idea of ‘full circle’ to connect the Apocalypsis with the ideas which form its backdrop. First, to flag up the simultaneously progressive and regressive nature of this ideology:

It was an old-new world of revolutionary reaction, in which the values bound up with the idea of the individual [...] were entirely rejected and shorn of power [...] – not, let me say, in a reactionary, anachronistic way as of yesterday or the day before, but so that it was like the most novel setting back of humanity into mediævally theocratic conditions and situations. That was as little reactionary as though one were to describe as regression the track round a sphere, which of course leads back to where it started. (p. 375-376)

And later, to justify in the Apocalypse the combination of old and new, on which the charge of barbarism rests:

but surely this is by no means an arbitrary combination; rather it lies in the nature of things: it rests, I might say, on the curvature of the world, which makes the last return unto the first. (p. 383)

 (Music tending to rediscover ancient forms, as the twelve-tone system is prefigured in the music of Johann Conrad Beissel).

The unresolved tension between these two uses of the simile pinpoints the uncomfortable consonance between modernism and fascism, forms which, however different they appear on the surface, both contain a ‘combination of very new and very old’ (p. 383). Fascism, itself a manifestation of modernity, had common ground with modernism in the arts. Like Futurism, it exalted modern technological phenomena – the railway system, speed, the radio and film – while at the same time making use of primitive folk-motifs. Radical in its break with the past and with traditional forms, it was consciously experimental, a new form of government for a new age. The fact that some modernists embraced fascism – Ezra Pound, for example – serves only to reinforce the connection.

For Mann, the connection between fascism and modernism would appear to be barbarism. While we might expect an old-fashioned liberal bourgeois like Zeitblom to be disturbed by any non-traditional music, it has to be noted that Mann found in Schönberg’s music an element of barbarism. Mann agreed with Adorno that the ‘rigorous rational analysis’ of Schönberg’s approach nonetheless resulted in ‘just the converse of rationality. Over the head of the artist, as it were, the art is cast back into a dark, mythological realm’ (Genesis, p. 40).

The concept of barbarism features in the wider discussion surrounding the effects of technology on modern art and culture during the 1930s and 1940s. To many intellectuals of this period, the popularisation of culture and the control of the masses through mass media were a cause for concern. Walter Benjamin noted the fascists’ use of film to make politics into a spectacle for the masses: ‘The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life’.17Yet such effects were also apparent in the free United States; Adorno and Horkheimer wished to explain ‘why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism’18 – a barbarism that had as much to do with Hollywood and the commodification of culture as with mass rallies and Hitler’s voice over the radio.19 The personal tragedy of Adrian Leverkühn is that his attempt to resolve the problem of artistic sterilitywhat Mann called ‘the desperate situation of art: the most vital factor’ (Genesis, p. 38) – results in an art which, though refined and cerebral, shares elements with a system he would despise.

The question remains whether Doctor Faustus is a modernist novel. Though it discusses the problems of modernism, it lacks the experimental techniques of novels such as Ulysses or The Waves. The conceit of the simple schoolmaster writing the biography of his beloved friend – a device which goes back to the early days of the novel and which Mann found beneficial to the writing process – not only produces a discontinuity between author and reader but allows an outward form which, superficially at least, relies on traditional techniques. Serenus Zeitblom, out-and-out traditionalist that he is, would never think of using anything but the conventional, realist modes. Yet Mann, discussing his work in relation to that of Joyce, was at pains to identify himself with the modernists, while at the same time acknowledging the greater accessibility and popularity of traditional forms (Genesis, pp. 75-76).

Georg Lukács praised Doctor Faustus precisely for the fact that it is not a modernist work: though its two time sequences lend it a superficial resemblance to some modernist novels, the fact that both time frames are ‘objective realities’ forming ‘one unified time sequence’ makes it a conventional realist novel. Deploring the ‘wildest orgies’ of the modernist treatment of time, with its ‘extreme subjective distortion of reality’, Lukács finds the fracturing of form in modernism unacceptable; however ironized, it is only conventional realist forms, treating time as a ‘social and historical unity’, which permit the disclosure of reality. In Lukács’s view, Doctor Faustus is a supreme example of this socially responsible realist novel.20

However, if we scratch beneath the surface of Doctor Faustus, we find a more intricate fabric. It was Bakhtin who said that the novel absorbs all forms and is a supremely effective vehicle for expressing the complex nature of truth; a dictum exemplified in the elaborate polyphonic structure of Doctor Faustus. Its hybrid nature has already been noted; in fact, what we have in Doctor Faustus is an amalgam of several forms and styles. Like many another Bildungsroman, it recounts the life of its subject in detail from childhood, but this authentic and accurate social realism is only one strand of the novel. Allegory forms a major element: Adrian Leverkühn is paralleled with Faust and with Germany. The Faust myth forms a template for the novel; the language of myth and fairy tale is used to imbue seemingly ordinary elements of the narrative with mythical significance: Leverkühn’s life is ‘marked by fate’ (p. 151); his seeking out of the prostitute Esmeralda a year after his visit to the Leipzig brothel is described by Zeitblom as a ‘fateful event’ (p. 155); prefigured, at the end of the preceding chapter, by the comment, ‘Adrian was to return to the place whither the betrayer had led him’ (p. 150). The tragedies of the Rodde daughters and of Rudi Schwerdtfeger are moved forward by traditional (and melodramatic) plot-driven dramas characteristic of the realist novel. There are Kretschmar’s lectures on the history of music (that on Beethoven is taken from Adorno’s essay ‘Beethoven’s Late Style’21) and much of Zeitblom’s narrative consists of reportage: for example, the accounts of the Roddes’ semi-bohemian salon and the theological lectures of professors Schlepfuss and Kumpf at Halle university. Though he did not define it as such, Mann’s use of these different representational modes – a collage of novelistic and essayistic forms – nonetheless constitutes an instance of montage, one more akin to that used by Eisenstein in his films and by Brecht in his episches Theater. Like the use of ‘double time’, Mann’s montage and juxtaposition create a layering effect, akin to that fragmentation of narrative which is a distinctive feature of the modernist work.22

Categories, however, are not always useful, and Doctor Faustus is in any case too complex and heterogeneous a work to be easily pigeon-holed. Whether or not it is relevant to the problem of fascism in the modern world,23 and though it makes heavy demands of its reader (one could be forgiven for wondering if it would be accepted for publication these days), as the novel of an era it is an extraordinary engagement with history.


1. Thomas Mann, The Genesis of a Novel, trans. by Richard and Clara Winston (London: Secker & Warburg, 1961), p. 34.  Further references are given after quotations in the text.

2. Mann’s notebook entry, 1905, quoted in T. J. Reed, Introduction to Doctor Faustus, p. xiii.

3. See Michael Beddow, Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 11-14.

4. Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, trans. by Helen Lowe-Porter (London: Everyman’s Library, 1992), p. 359. Further references are given after quotations in the text.

5. Jaroslav Pelikan, Faust the Theologian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 7.

6. The uncertainty is Zeitblom’s.

7. Genesis, p. 29 and Doctor Faustus, p. 1. The Everyman edition of Lowe-Porter’s English translation has May 27, but this is a misprint; the German text has May 23: Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2008).

8. Mann apparently believed, from his reading of certain biographies, that Nietzsche had knowingly contracted syphilis. (Beddow, p. 34.)

9. T. J. Reed, Introduction to Doctor Faustus, p. xv

10. Letter from Mann to Agnes. E. Meyer, 30 May 1938, quoted in T. J. Reed, Introduction to Doctor Faustus, p. xv.

11. T. J. Reed, ‘Mann and history’, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. by Ritchie Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 1-21 (p. 5).

12. Georg Lukács, ‘In Search of Bourgeois Man’, in Essays on Thomas Mann (London: Merlin Press, 1964), pp. 13-46 (p. 15).

13. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, in The Uncanny, trans. by David McLintock (London: Penguin Books, 2003), pp. 121-162, (p. 134).

14. Ibid., passim.

15. In Book VI of the Aeneid. Virgil, Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid I-VI, with English translation by H. Rushton Fairclough, revised by G. P. Gould, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 520-521.

16. R. B. Kitaj, catalogue note on ‘If Not, Not’ for the retrospective exhibition of his work in 1994-1995; in Morphet, Richard (ed.), R. B. Kitaj (New York: Rizzoli, 1994), p. 120.

17. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Lawrence Rainey (ed.), Modernism: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), pp. 1095-1113 (p. 1108).

18. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. by John Cumming (London: Verso, 1997), p. xi.

19. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. by John Cumming (London: Verso, 1997), pp. 120-167.

20. Lukács, ‘The Tragedy of Modern Art’, in Essays on Thomas Mann (London: Merlin Press, 1964), pp. 78-84 (pp. 78, 80, 84).

21. Fredric Jameson, ‘Allegory and History: On Rereading Doktor Faustus’, in The Modernist Papers (London: Verso, 2007), pp. 113-133 (p. 116).

22. Alan Wall, ‘Demotic Ritual: The Primacy of Form in Modern Art and Physics’, p. 11.

23. For a discussion of fascism in modern India, for example, see Jairus Banaji, ‘The Political Culture of Fascism’ (2002) <> [accessed 14/02/08]. It is interesting that Banaji shares Mann’s view of fascism as an ideology nurtured not only by political conditions but by widespread cultural and psychological tendencies.