Thomas Mann’s “Doktor Faustus”–First of Two


This is the first of two posts containing entries from my philosophical journal regarding Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, his late novel addressed to the emergence of the Nazi state and the eventual complete collapse of Germany at the end of World War II.  Last winter I reread the novel after an interval of many years, and this time I read it in the original German–though in the journal entries I made during my rereading, I used the available English translation, with some modifications, as indicated. The date below is when I first wrote the entry in my journal.

Saturday, February 6, 2009

Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus:  The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend (named Serenus Zeitblom), translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York:  Vintage Books, 1971–orig. English trans. 1948; Ger. orig., 1947), pp. 189-190, conversation between Adrian and Zeitblom, with the former speaking first:

“[W]e need a system-master, a teacher of the objective and organization, with enough genius to write the old-established, the archaic, with the revolutionary. . . . [I]t could mean something necessary to the time, something promising a remedy in an age of destroyed conventions and the relearning of all objective obligations–in short, of a freedom that begins to lie like a mildew upon talent and to betray traces of sterility.”

Then Zeitblom, the narrator, observes, before resuming the conversation:

I started at the word.  Hard to say why, but in his mouth, altogether in conversation with him, there was something dismaying about it, something wherein anxiety mixed in an odd way with reverence.  It came from the fact that in his neighborhood [the German is Nähe, “nearness” or “vicinity”] sterility, threatened paralysis, arrest of productivity could be thought of only as something positive and proud, only in connection with a pure and lofty intellectuality.

Then the dialogue continues:

“It would be tragic,” I said, “if unfruitfulness should ever be the result of freedom.  But there is always the hope of the release of the productive power, for the sake of which freedom is achieved.”

“True,” he responded.  “And she does for a while achieve what she promised.  But freedom is of course another name for subjectivity, and some fine day she does not hold out any longer, some time or other she despairs of the possibility of being creative out of herself and seeks shelter and security in the objective [Note how nicely this fits the image of the camel in Nietzsche’s “Three Metamorphoses” of the spirit in Zarathustra].  Freedom always inclines to dialectic reversals.  She realizes herself very soon in restraint [Note how well, too, all this fits monastic experience and practice], fulfills herself in the subordination to law, rule, coercion, system–but to fulfill herself therein does not mean she therefore ceases to be freedom.”

“In your opinion,” I laughed:  “So far as she knows.  But actually she is no longer freedom, as little as dictatorship born out of revolution is still freedom.”

“Are you sure of it?” he asked.  “But anyhow that is talking politics.  In art, at least, the subjective and the objective intertwine to the point of being indistinguishable, one proceeds from the other and takes the characteristics of the other, the subjective precipitates as objective and by genius is again awakened to spontaneity, ‘dynamized,’ as we say; it speaks all at once the language of the subjective.  The musical conventions today destroyed were not always so objective, so objectively imposed.  They were crystallizations of living experiences and as such long performed an office of vital importance:  the task of organization.  Organization is everything.  Without it, there is nothing, least of all art.  And it was aesthetic subjectivity that took on the task, it undertook to organize the work out of itself, in freedom.”

Reminds me of Badiou on the aleatoriness of truth.

Then, fifty some pages later, in the manuscript wherein Adrian recounts his dialogue with the devil, p. 243, the devil says to Adrian:

“This is what I think:  that an untruth of a kind that enhances power holds its own against any ineffectually virtuous truth.  [Compare Nietzsche again, of course.] And I mean too that creative, genius giving disease [syphilis], disease that rides on high horse all over hindrances, and springs with drunken daring from peak to peak.  [What he’s just described also fits the “disease” of addiction, at least in popular myth.]  . . . I have never heard anything stupider then that from disease only disease can come.  Life is not scrupulous. . . . It takes the restless product of disease, feeds on and digests it, and as soon as it takes it to itself it is health.”

Reading such passages again now, thirty or forty years after having read Doctor Faustus for the first time (only in translation then, this time in the original German), I view them through conceptual lenses ground by my work on addiction and, more recently, on trauma, most especially [Paul] Eisenstein’s interpretation [of Mann’s novel]–whereby Adrian is not the Fascist problem, but, rather, the solution to that problem, whereas Zeitblom becomes the bearer/representative of the problem, and of Fascism as inseparable from that problem.

Viewed through such lenses, the passages I’ve cited point toward the idea, also to be found in Santner, Bateson, and others, that “redemption,” “cure,” “recovery,” or the like, is not to be found in avoidance of . . . (whatever is in play here in the given case, be it “sin,” “neurosis,” “addiction,” or something else), but in release from . . . (the same whatever).  That is, it is to be found, to use the language that currently resonates most fully in my own thought, in finally opening to the trauma as trauma.  It is to let the trauma finally traumatize, and then send one forth to live as so traumatized, so wounded–lamed, as Jacob was lamed in wrestling with the angel of the Lord.

Zeitblom, as his very name can be heard to suggest, wants to live by and in and from the past.  That is, life lived looking backward, like Lot’s wife in leaving the “cities of the plain.”  And like Lot’s wife, those who live life looking backward are turned into statues, or Santner’s “animated undead.”

And the problem, then?  A later passage from Mann’s novel may capture it:  “the itch to know,” which Lowe-Porter translates by leaving out the “knowing,” the “to know,” by just saying “the itch one felt.”  Here is the passage, with my substitution of “the itch to know” for Lowe-Porter’s “the itch one felt,” from p. 268 of his translation.  Adrian is describing at length his imagined descent in a diving bell to the darkest level of the ocean’s abyss, and in the course of it comes to speak of “the itch to know” that drives those who suffer from it “to expose the unexposed, to look at the unlooked at, the not-to-be and not-expecting-to-be-looked-at.  There was a feeling of indiscretion, even of guilt, bound up with it, not quite allayed by the feeling that science must be allowed to press just as far forwards as it is given the intelligence of scientists to go [Mann’s German just says “given the wits to go”–Witz–with no mention of “scientists”].”

The “problem” here is no less than Heidegger’s Gestell.  And, as Heidegger insists, following Hölderlin, it is only there, where all the danger is, that what saves–what redeems, cures, or allows recovery–can grow.

Ironically, however, it is only if Eisenstein is right (which would also mean the devil in the above exchange is right) in seeing Fascism and all that goes with it to be grounded in the soil of Zeitblom and all bourgeois appeal to “humanity” and “humanism,” that what saves might come from the danger or disease of “the itch to know” Adrian describes–i.e., knowledge itself as such drive to know, the whole of modern science and technology–that is, that holds only if Eisenstein is right to see the bourgeois Zeitblom at the root of Nazism.  The irony is that Eisenstein is right on that, only if Heidegger himself is wrong at one point.  That point is Heidegger’s remark, in the lecture course (later published) under the title “Introduction to Metaphysics” in 1935, when he says that the “inner truth and greatness of the National Socialist movement” lies in being an attempt to respond to the spirit of modern technology.  If Adrian is such a response, not Zeitblom, then the Nazis were Zeitbloms, not Leverkühns (and not the devil, at least the devil of Adrian’s dialogue).

Published in: on July 27, 2009 at 1:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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