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Disease and Health: The Tragic and the Human Realms of Thomas Mann

Life is not prudish, and it is probably safe to say that life prefers creative, genius-bestowing disease a thousand times over to prosaic health; prefers disease, surmounting obstacles proudly on horseback, boldly leaping from peak to peak, to lounging, pedestrian healthfulness. Life is not finical and never thinks of making a moral distinction between health and infirmity. It seizes the bold product of disease, consumes and digests it, and soon as it is assimilated, it is health. An entire horde, a generation of open-minded, healthy lads pounces upon the work of diseased genius, genialized by disease, admires and praises it, raises it to the skies, perpetuates it, transmutes it, and bequeathes it to civilization, which does not live on the home-baked bread of health alone. They all swear by the name of the great invalid, thanks to whose madness they no longer need to be mad. Their healthfulness feeds upon his madness and in them he will become healthy.

In other words, certain attainments of the soul and the intellect are impossible without disease, without insanity, without spiritual crime, and the great invalids are crucified victims, sacrificed to humanity and its advancement, to the broadening of its feeling and knowledge—in short, to its more sublime health.

Thomas Mann, Preface to
The Short Novels of Dostoevsky, 1945

1. The End of Faustus: Death and Transfiguration

A work that deals with the Tempter, with apostasy, with damnation, what else could it be but a religious work? What I mean is a conversion, a proud and bitter change of heart … (490)1

Thomas Mann does indeed belong on the frontispiece of this volume. In furnishing me with the epigraph for this entire study, he has furnished me with much more. All his work, like Leverkühn’s The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus which he is there describing, is this very sort of “mammoth variation-piece.” And Leverkühn’s theme, “For I die as a good and as a bad Christian,” is essentially Mann’s: the heights and the depths of the human reaches, and the unavailability of the middle ranges. All this too is my theme—and Mann has done so much to usher us all into it that I must pay this homage. Thus I dare not yield to the temptation of passing by his work on the grounds that, more than any other of my authors, he has been the subject of extensive—if not exhaustive—commentary both various and brilliant.2 In view of all this learned work, I cannot start ab novo as if nothing had been written before, while my own purposes will not permit me to make this a mere review of scholarship. Yet I must make use of Mann, who is so self-consciously aware of the very problems I deal with, indeed who dedicated his work almost exclusively to their exploration. All he wrote is at once a warning against extremity and an acknowledgment not merely of its indispensability for the sake of vision but of its inescapable attractions if you are its man and it is your destiny.

Thanks to Mann, Faustus becomes our last—as he was our first—symbol of modern man as tragic visionary. Since Mann has made him the extreme representative of the morbid tendency of our culture and our history, I cannot claim to carry his theme further. It may seem that Mann has in effect written this book for me, but in his way—which perhaps accounts for our difficulty with his work as novels. His strongly philosophical investigations, while often obscuring his drama, may seem to have treated my subject too discursively and too exhaustively for me to include him and still leave anything for me to do—in other words, for me to include him without appearing to rival him. This would be an act of special presumption since, like all moderns, I have learned endlessly from Mann, and what I have learned has been an indispensable guide to my own probings. Still, most readers would agree that Mann, though often more essayist than dramatist in style and literary conception, is not quite transparent; so that a medium may after all be useful to place him within my conception.

This last Faustus is clearly far more like the first Faustus, that sixteenth-century ill-fated magician of modernism emerging from the dawn of Protestantism, than he is like Goethe’s humanistic transformation of him. His world is the world of sin and damnation, of forbidden alchemy and the unyielding door that denies all to affirm human limitations—the lock on aspirations that only transcendent grace, as reward for self-humiliation, can open. It is not the open world that can lead through striving to clarity, the neo-Promethean world that Goethe imposed and justified to find the purely human grace that each can create. For Goethe, man, ejected from the neatly ordered nature posited by simple rationalism—from the mirror-universe of the Enlightenment—can, through subjective assertiveness, exercise dominance over it, bring it once more to order, his order and consequently its. Thus the grand union of subjective and objective, the harmony that was the forward-looking culmination of German humanistic thought by the early nineteenth century. Faustus was rescued from transgression by Goethe only to be urged in the name of heroic zeal to work out his human salvation, with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on his lips, by doing all that was forbidden earlier by the orthodox ethic. And the man-god was set to work performing his miracles—the miracles which by the time of Mann destroyed all harmony and threatened to destroy man himself. This turn suggested that perhaps the sixteenth century was righter and that the humanly synthesized harmony was the delusion of prideful excess, of a cursed self-sufficiency. The high point of modern Western culture was a fraud, its promise now mere ashes. Even art must remake the dulling formula that smothers what it promised to liberate. For, as Gide’s Michel came to realize in rejecting it, harmony has become the mean and synthesis become the middle way—the way, that is, of the middle class. While it is true, then, that it is the Faustbook’s Faust rather than Goethe’s that is relevant to Mann’s, Goethe’s is very much there by negation. As others have seen, The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus is Leverkühn’s instrument to “take back” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with his “Ode to Sorrow” the revocation of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” in the same way as in his novel Mann is taking back Goethe’s Faust. In that finally satisfying moment in which Faust can rest, in that tribute to human endeavor when he wins land back from the sea on which to found a healthy folk, Goethe indeed seems to have produced the literary equivalent of Beethoven’s joyous Ninth. And Mann, musical novelist, calls out with his devilish revoker to revoke.

Having recognized the deceptive optimism in claims that polar extremes can be synthesized through the act of human will, that subjectivity and objectivity can be fused through the postulation of the urgent “I AM,” Mann rejects the middle areas, the human areas, in order to cultivate the extremities, the saintly and the diabolical. Refusing to mediate them, he forces them paradoxically to support each other, indeed to reflect each other, finally to become masks for each other. It is here that he turns the sixteenth century upon itself, finding—as Gide found and as later we shall see Melville and Faulkner finding—that the Protestant ethic itself contains the charter for the devil’s way. As Leverkühn returns to the archaic to find the authentication of his radically modern musical inventiveness, so Mann bypasses Goethe to return to the original Faust of an outmoded time. And in Mann’s case, as in Leverkühn’s, it is authentication by parody.

Parody, of course, is the root of Adrian’s musical genius and the flower of his musical creations. The devil’s gift, it accounts for the inhuman coldness, along with the flaming brilliance, of both. It is the consequence of an anti-harmonic modernism and an anti-harmonic archaism, barbaric in the blending of two anti-humanisms, the post-humanistic and the pre-humanistic—“twice barbaric indeed, because of coming after the humane, after all possible root-treatment and bourgeois raffinement” (243), as Adrian’s Mephistopheles guarantees him. It is this new-old barbarism that Adrian’s humanistic biographer comes to fear:

Here no one can follow me who has not as I have experienced in his very soul how near aestheticism and barbarism are to each other: aestheticism as the herald of barbarism. I experienced this distress certainly not for myself but in the light of my friendship for a beloved and emperilled artist soul. The revival of ritual music from a profane epoch has its dangers. It served indeed the ends of the Church, did it not? But before that it had served less civilized ones, the ends of the medicineman, magic ends. That was in times when all celestial affairs were in the hands of the priest-medicine-man, the priest-wizard. Can it be denied that this was a pre-cultural, a barbaric condition of cult-art; and is it comprehensible or not that the late and cultural revival of the cult in art, which aims by atomization to arrive at collectivism, seizes upon means that belong to a stage of civilization not only priestly but primitive? (373)

Parody, the guise of the newly objective anti-harmonics, is then a complete inversion of the resolution of extremes that Adrian’s teacher Kretschmar found in Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111. There is extremity here too, but all finally converts to the blessedness of the human. Let me excerpt painfully from Zeitblom’s summary of Kretschmar’s performance:

What now happens to this mild utterance, rhythmically, harmonically, contrapuntally, to this pensive, subdued formulation, with what its master blesses and to what condemns it, into what black nights and dazzling flashes, crystal spheres wherein coldness and heat, repose and ecstasy are one and the same, he flings it down and lifts it up … The characteristic of the movement of course is the wide gap between bass and treble, between the right and the left hand, and a moment comes, an utterly extreme situation, when the poor little motif seems to hover alone and forsaken above a giddy yawning abyss—a procedure of awe-inspiring unearthliness, to which then succeeds a distressful making-of-itself-small, a start of fear as it were, that such a thing could happen. Much else happens before the end. But when it ends and while it ends, something comes, after so much rage, persistence, obstinacy, extravagance: something entirely unexpected and touching in its mildness and goodness.… It is like having one’s hair or cheek stroked, lovingly, understandingly, like a deep and silent farewell look. It blesses the object, the frightfully harried formulation, with overpowering humanity … (54–55)

The futility of this musical humanism in Adrian’s world or in the world left behind by Adrian is echoed in the lament of Zeitblom, returning to his classical pedagogic devotions after the death of Adrian and of nazism, that he can no longer make meaningful “the cultural ideas in which reverence for the dieties of the depths blends with the civilized cult of Olympic reason and clarity, to make for a unity in uprightness” (505).3 For Adrian refused to synthesize extremes into harmonics and instead, with a savage mockery that reflected the unbending Lutheran ethic, drove them ever farther apart in their purity until, through the paradox cultivated by anti-humanistic irrationalism, the poles, in the purity of their common extremity, were forced to become identical and thus interchangeable.

Thus in his first devilishly inspired work, the sacrilegious jest he called Marvels of the Universe, he insists on celebrating God’s creation—“the immeasurable extra-human,” the infinitude of astronomical heights and the ocean deeps—glorying during his “luciferian sardonic mood” (275) in their inaccessibility, their indifference, indeed their irrelevance to the human universe. In his Gesta Romanorum he celebrates the medieval union of the sacred and the obscene, of the pious and the perverse, leading to his Apocalyptic Oratorio, modeled on Dürer, in which Adrian willfully forces a tight, an abstract musical system through the use of the glissando, that anti-systematic “barbaric rudiment from pre-musical days” which Zeitblom rejects on “profoundly cultural grounds” (374). This oratorio, Zeitblom tells us, “is dominated by the paradox (if it is a paradox) that in it dissonance stands for the expression of everything lofty, solemn, pious, everything of the spirit; while consonance and firm tonality are reserved for the world of hell, in this context a world of banality and commonplace” (375). And why not? For here the “pandemonium of laughter, of hellish merriment” (378) is made to be a reflection of the unearthly sublimity of the children’s chorus: “The passages of horror just before heard are given, indeed, to the indescribable children’s chorus at quite a different pitch, and in changed orchestration and rhythms; but in the searing, susurrant tones of spheres and angels there is not one note which does not occur, with rigid correspondence, in the hellish laughter” (378–379). In this “substantial identity of the most blest and accurst, the inner unity of the chorus of child angels and the hellish laughter of the damned” (486), Zeitblom correctly sees the anti-humanistic, the revolutionary and reactionary paradox of Adrian’s creative genius: “calculation raised to mystery” (379).

To repeat, this inhuman parody is the devil’s gift, although that Adrian was ready for it we know from his earlier Love’s Labour’s Lost. In his life as well as in his music he had been preparing himself for his visitor that climactic night. Indeed, amid the towers of Kaiseraschern and the playful hermetics of his father he had been prepared from the first. After all, was it not in his father’s “speculating the elements” that the noxious “Hetaera Esmeralda” made her first bewitching appearance? From Kaiseraschern to the theological mysteries into which the obviously diabolical Schleppfuss initiated him and to the forbidden alchemy of music under Kretschmar. And our Faust, like his original, sprouts under the very shadow of Luther to become an inverted reflection of him. All that is left is for the purity of Adrian’s asceticism, leading even to a “distaste for the too great physical nearness of people” (220), to be momentarily identified with the extremity of license. He is ready for the reentrance of Esmeralda, both his father’s butterfly and the devil’s agent, the prostitute to whom he is led by “the small-beer Schleppfuss” (142). She at once repels him by her merest touch and challenges him to the all-consuming embrace. So he searches her out and, warned by her of the danger of her disease, is all the more urgent.

… what was it, what madness, what deliberate, reckless tempting of God, what compulsion to comprise the punishment in the sin, finally what deep, deeply mysterious longing for daemonic conception, for a deathly unchaining of chemical change in his nature was at work, that having been warned he despised the warning and insisted upon possession of this flesh? (155)

He never sees her again but is tied to her forever—in the abstinence of his life, in the austere licentiousness of his work, in the chemistry of musical creativity and human destruction bestowed by syphilis. The term Hetaera Esmeralda, “her name—that which he gave her from the beginning—whispers magically … throughout his work” (155). And the polarities are affirmed in this momentary and devastating union that always commands his fidelity and allows him the brilliant inventiveness of genius. For he has been led to the extremity of license only by the extremity of self-denial and is permanently freed from the sensual only by this single total enslavement to it: “… his chastity since then, since that embrace, since his passing contagion and the loss of his physicians, sprang no longer from the ethos of purity but from the pathos of impurity” (220). We are reminded of Schleppfuss’ prophetic story of medieval witchcraft, in which the sexton’s daughter renders the cooper impotent to all women except her. But the cooper is less faithful than Adrian and has his beloved burned as a witch, hearing in her shrieks “the voice of the Demon, croaking as against his will he issued from her” and recovering “the sinfully alienated free use of his manhood” (109). Adrian’s remains “alienated”: “Thou maist not love” (248), he is commanded by the devil or by his disease or by the frigidly anti-human dedication of his work and his life. And of course there is no saying how literal or metaphorical his devil is meant to be, whether it was he who summoned Esmeralda and the disease—and with them the superhuman capacities of Adrian’s creativity and the limited time for his exercise of it—or whether it was all these that summoned him as their symbolic reduction, their ambiguous incarnation. But, given the brilliance of Mann’s symbolism that works both ways, it cannot matter how we answer—any more than in The Magic Mountain it matters whether Hans actually has contracted tuberculosis when Mann forces us to define the disease in terms of a certain spiritual condition with which Hans has surely been afflicted.

Impelled by the moral-sensual collision with Esmeralda, which is echoed in the contractual confrontation by the devil, Adrian rejects all to realize the inmost depths which have moved him all along but which have not before claimed his exclusive devotion. He wills his diabolism; but, unlike that other artist Aschenbach, he does not withdraw from art for the demonic but rather presses art into the demonic, that which heightens and even purifies as it dehumanizes it. For Adrian’s story is not based on the simple humanistic dialectic of Death in Venice which identifies art, austerity, and civilization and opposes them—almost in Settembrinian fashion—to the sensual and the diseased. The new Faustus lives in a world more Janus-faced than this, in which art and disease, austerity and sensuality are one. But of course this is his world because, as Faustus, he lives in hell. And hell is the world without love, the denial of the human and of human claims, the cold identification of equally life-denying extremes. Thus the Adversary can tell him, “Thy life shall be cold, therefore thou shalt love no human being.… Cold we want you to be, that the fires of creation shall be hot enough to warm yourself in. Into them you will flee out of the cold of your life.…” And Adrian can answer, “And from the burning back to the ice. It seems to be hell in advance, which is already offered me on earth” (249). But even the devil knows he is not wholly responsible, that his injunctions upon Adrian are but fulfillments of what has been latent within his quarry: “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 feith 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” (249).

Still something remains in Adrian that seeks to cheat the devil and rejoin humanity. His most natural companion was the cynical, unreliable Rüdiger Schildknapp, who acknowledged no human obligations. Their “laughter-loving friendship … rested upon an indifference as profound as it was light-hearted” (171). But always they did not move beyond formal address to the du. It is precisely the thou which, here as in The Magic Mountain, humanizes. Which is why Rüdiger, who could not and would not attain to it, was Adrian’s likeliest friend. But there is also the flirtatious Rudi Schwerdtfeger, who wooed Adrian for his thou and won a show of affection and the Violin Concerto that Adrian confessed to be his only human work. And there is Marie, whom Adrian loved “out of his own world of musical theology, oratorio, mathematical number-magic” (423), in whom he wished to find “the human content of his future work” (436), through whom he hoped even to overcome death. But the Adversary must take his revenge: through his love for Marie, Adrian blunders into losing them both and destroying Rudi. Or perhaps does not blunder; perhaps it is the devil in Adrian rather than the Adversary himself. For Adrian may have acted not entirely without some subterranean awareness of these consequences (442, 501). At the end there is the beloved Nepomuk and the finally intolerable deprivation, this one not requiring Adrian as accomplice, this one externally and arbitrarily imposed by the diabolus ex machina that at last establishes Mephistopheles as a literal reality.

Having with a stroke of underground cunning deprived himself of Rudi and Marie and having with a gratuitously ruthless stroke been deprived of Nepomuk, Adrian is ready to underwrite his inhuman fate by taking back Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And he translates this conclusion into nonmusical terms as well:

I find … that it is not to be.… The good and the noble … what we call the human, although it is good, and noble. What human beings have fought for and stormed citadels, what the ecstatics exultantly announced—that is not to be. It will be taken back. I will take it back. (478)

But the Lamentation does more than take it back. For we are told that despite its tight and unyielding structure it moves freely in response to subjectivity; that though “a work of extreme calculation, [it] is at the same time purely expressive” (488). Here, then, is the revolutionary-archaic break-through: Leverkühn has not only reversed Beethoven, but in so doing he has surpassed him at his own game. By attaining pure expressiveness, the work is “mellower, more melodious”: Leverkühn has managed at last “without parody” (489).

Is not this high seriousness, this “expression as lament,” a cheating of the devil and a paradoxically inhuman return to humanity? While Zeitblom is anxious that we do not sense any alleviation of despair in this most despairing of works, he suggests that the mere act of giving despair an aesthetically controlled expression is some kind of human victory over it.4 For at the end of the Lamentation “the final despair achieves a voice”:

… it would mean to disparage the uncompromising character of the work, its irremediable anguish to say that it affords, down to its very last note, any other consolation than what lies in voicing it, in simply giving sorrow words; in the fact, that is, that a voice is given the creature for its woe. (491)

But, Zeitblom asks, may we not convert the aesthetic paradox—that sees the expressiveness of subjectivity issuing out of extreme calculation—into “a religious one, and say too (though only in the lowest whisper) that out of the sheerly irremediable hope might germinate? It would be but a hope beyond hopelessness, the transcendence of despair—not betrayal to her, but the miracle that passes belief” (491). And our narrator calls our attention to the final note as it dies away:

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 so no more. It changes its meaning; it abides as a light in the night. (491)

So does Adrian change his meaning here at the last. Like the paradoxical light in the night, the echo of sound in silence, he remains with us transfigured in his very dissolution. The limitlessness of his rebellion and of his unrepentance is itself a kind of piety. It is not, then, that he reforms out of even the slightest repentance; it is that he rejects any reformation so utterly as to attain the extremity that, in Mann’s world, can become miraculously transformed into its absolute opposite. Thus it is that the last and most desperate Faust, by virtue of his unrelaxed desperation, is transfigured to Jesus.

A work that deals with the Tempter, with apostasy, with damnation, what else could it be but a religious work? What I mean is a conversion, a proud and bitter change of heart, as I, at least, read it in the “friendly plea” of Dr. Faustus to the companions of his last hour, that they should betake themselves to bed, sleep in peace, and let naught trouble them. In the frame of the cantata one can scarcely help recognizing this instruction as the conscious and deliberate reversal of the “Watch with me” of Gethsemane. And again the Johann’s wine, the draught drunk by the parting soul with his friends, has an altogether ritual stamp, it is conceived as another Last Supper. But linked with it is an inversion of the temptation idea, in such a way that Faust rejects as temptation the thought of being saved: not only out of formal loyalty to the pact and because it is “too late,” but because with his whole soul he despises the positivism of the world for which one would save him, the lie of its godliness. This becomes clearer still and is worked out even more powerfully in the scene with the good old doctor and neighbour who invites Faust to come to see him, in order to make a pious effort to convert him. In the cantata he is clearly drawn in the character of a tempter; and the tempting of Jesus by Satan is unmistakably suggested; as unmistakably also is the “Apage!” by the proudly despairing “No!” uttered to false and flabby middle-class piety. (490)

And in the farewell apologia to his friends by Adrian-Faustus—the last-hour scene that echoes the last-hour scene of Adrian’s cantata as we have just witnessed it—this note of relentless self-sacrifice, of savior-scapegoat, is sounded again—but again in a way that permits no slightest similarity to the Beethoven-Goethe-humanist way.

Yea verily, dear mates, that art is stuck and grown too heavy and scorneth itselfe and God’s poor man knoweth no longer where to turn in his sore plight, that is belike the fault in the times. But an one invite the divel as guest, to pass beyond all this and get to the break-through, he chargeth his soul and taketh the guilt of the time upon his own shoulders, so that he is damned. For it hath been said “Be sober, and watch!” But that is not the affair of some; rather, instead of shrewdly concerning themselves with what is needful upon earth that it may be better there, and discreetly doing it, that among men such order shall be stablished that again for the beautiful work living soil and true harmony be prepared, man playeth the truant and breaketh out in hellish drunkenness; so giveth he his soul thereto and cometh among the carrion. (499–500)

The pure incarnation of our darkest aspects—even as Germany was—Adrian has made a full assumption of our burden of guilt. Thus the saintly—indeed the Christ-like—through the cultivation of the absolutely unmitigated Satanic: light through a totally unenlightened darkness, hope through hopelessness, blessedness that is the other side of damnation, a heaven that is a transcendence—through an utter realization—of hell. This is indeed the universe of what the late Philip Blair Rice termed “the non-Euclidean,” “the merging parallels,”5 where the recklessness of abandon impossibly yields the break-through.

Of course, none of this is to be confused with repentance; indeed, the very power of this miracle depends on the refusal to repent. In his initial interview with the devil Adrian argues against his Adversary’s insistence that he is already in hell, thanks to his rebellious pride that will never allow contrition. Adrian counters with the claim that there is also a “prideful contritio,” the “contritio without hope, as complete disbelief in the possibility of mercy and forgiveness, the rocklike firm conviction of the sinner that he has done too grossly for even the Everlasting Goodness to be able to forgive his sin—only that is the true contritio … for Goodness the most irresistible of all” (247). His visitor answers this brilliant sophistry with the claim that the self-conscious, deliberate parodist could never arouse “the single-mindedness, the naive recklessness of despair” needed “for this sinful waye to salvacion” (247), that Adrian’s very awareness of the possibility prohibits its accessibility to him. And Adrian merely piles this awareness onto “the most abandoned guilt,” thus even improving upon this “last and most irresistible challenge to the Everlasting Goodness.”

It may well be that, as Joseph Frank suggests, the desperation produced in Adrian by the ruthless immolation of Nepomuk finally leads him to the requisite “single-mindedness” and “naive recklessness of despair” which are projected outward, “without parody,” upon the singularly expressive Lamentation and its final tone that “abides as a light in the night.” But this sounds dangerously close to true contrition, to a salvation won through a profoundly human love; and Mann could not now allow a resolution that so leans to the simply affirmative, perhaps having learned better from The Magic Mountain. And so he must work dialectically to undercut it. At the end of his final scene, his farewell to his companions, Adrian in effect recapitulates the two sides of his original argument with his Mephisto:

My sin is greater than that it can be forgiven me, and I have raised it to its height, for my head speculated that the contrite unbelief in the possibility of Grace and pardon might be the most intriguing of all for the Everlasting Goodness, where yet I see that such impudent calculation makes compassion unpossible. Yet basing upon that I went further in speculation and reckoned that this last depravity must be the uttermost spur for Goodness to display its everlastingness. And so then, that I carried on an atrocious competition with the Goodness above, which were more inexhaustible, it or my speculation—so ye see that I am damned, and there is no pity for me for that I destroy all and every beforehand by speculation. (502)

And in this infinite regress the dual nature of the extremity is allowed to stand unresolved. It leads to the inversion that identifies grace with damnation to the extent that it is bestowed uniquely upon the sinner whose only repentance is his all-too-conscious rejection, in the manner of Christ’s rejection of Satan’s temptation, of the divine command to repent. But it is contradiction as well as inversion in that the grace, like the contrition, is every time denied as it is affirmed.

All this equivocal assertion of polarities befits the strange movement from Faust to Faust-as-Jesus, if not a movement from Faust to Jesus. As I have said, this Faust, the other side of Luther still, is indeed our last as he was our first modern man as tragic visionary. In the purity and the extremity of his recognition of his role, there would seem to be no place for the visionary to go beyond him. By assuming his role with full intelligence and self-consciousness, he is taking it all on himself: he is trying to do and say it all, thus obviating the need of another to do it and say it ever again. This farthest expression of the tragic vision can, in Mann’s hands and as one of his characteristic paradoxes, convert the tragic vision into something else even as it converts Faust into a strange sort of Christ. As with the role of Nazi Germany in the history of Western culture, the culmination of the movement carries a kind of purification with it, a purge that signals the beginning of another movement. And so, once we leave Mann, the movement of this volume itself must shift from the self-conscious demon to the self-conscious savior, from the visionary as Faust to the visionary as Jesus—with the recognition that the two may after all be one, that so long as the would-be Jesus is only man there remains the Faust within, “elementing” him. But whether or not, as Mann hoped, his Faust—with the light of his darkness—would mean the beginning of something, he seems to have meant the end of something, thanks to a redemption that he in his third coming has so dearly purchased.

2. The Magic Mountain: The Failure of “Spirituel” Mediation

But unreasoning love is spirituel; for death is the spirituel principle, the res bina, the lapis philosophorum, and the pedagogic principle too, for love of it leads to love of life and love of humanity. Thus, as I have lain in my loge, it has been revealed to me, and I am enchanted to be able to tell you all about it. There are two paths to life: one is the regular one, direct, honest. The other is bad, it leads through death—that is the spirituel way. (596) 6

The facile alternatives and the obvious choice between them in this conclusive oration by Hans Castorp to Clavdia Chauchat, agent of his corruption and his humanizing, are indicative of the less sophisticated view Mann took of his intransigent oppositions in his earlier book—and of the less sophisticated hopefulness with which he then looked for affirmation. To say this is not to be totally just to the novel since it gets a good deal more troublesome than is promised by the clean-cut reduction of it that I have indicated. It is as if Mann changed his mind while writing his novel and refused to allow the simplification of his increasingly reluctant materials—the simplification with which he may have optimistically begun. The simple dialectic seems to have been planned in the neat Hegelian manner with the usual thesis-antithesis-synthesis arrangement. But just as we seem to have arrived—probably in the all-illuminating chapter, “Snow”—everything proceeds, luckily, to get pretty well messed up. It is questionable, given the uncertainties and inconstancies of direction, whether The Magic Mountain ever straightens out satisfactorily, for all the brilliance of its maneuvers. And it may be that the final, the purest, and the most controlled working of these themes had to await the sustained and inexorable mastery of Doctor Faustus. Nevertheless, it should be helpful for us to witness the earlier belaborings of these problems so that we may better appreciate the full meaning of their final mature design.

It is immediately apparent that Hans Castorp’s involvement with the demonic is continually more tenuous than Leverkühn’s. For Hans is unexceptional man while Adrian is mammoth in his uniqueness, the final incarnation of extremity. Hans, unimpressive, essentially commonplace, the not very dedicated, not very practical engineer, is after all no more than a “Joli bourgeois à la petite tache humide” (342), as Clavdia characterizes him. Settembrini terms him “life’s delicate child” whose “stock-taking” impulses it pleases to experience and experiment. Hans is precisely such a child, passing through many stages and temptations once he is shocked into a full awareness of his Mountain retreat and release, but incapable of an encompassing commitment. He is being initiated into the race, educated by its history, by the dialectical interplay of the alternatives to which it has yielded; he is not himself, like Leverkühn, of a stature or of a madness to create himself as the image of the race, its suicidal, sacrificial redeemer. Thus Hans is the protagonist of a Bildungsroman which still bears many features of the freely moving picaresque from which it developed. And he moves—experimentally, tentatively—from position to opposition in search of that which will allow him to live and to live faithfully, with a faith that is earned, earned through a full appreciation of that which quickens life and deadens it, deepens it and drowns it.

Hans is recapitulating, picaresque fashion, the history and the decline of Western culture, in a kind of parody of its major moments. At a single point in time and space, Hans yet wanders spiritually from Europe to Asia, from classicism to medievalism to modernism and to romanticism. Yet each representative of a given moment is a parody, an absurd reduction of that moment—that which convinces Hans of its bankruptcy and of his need to turn elsewhere. It is as if the tendencies which are presently attracting him summon up an incarnation of themselves in their extreme form in order to warn him away by forcing him to see their partiality, indeed their invidiousness.

Originally reacting against the impact of the Mountain with his “Flatland” dullness, he meets Settembrini, the extreme representative of Flatland ethics erected into an ideology. This confrontation, coming as it does in the midst of the anti-humanistic attractions of the Mountain, helps push Hans, out of a kind of “slack” perversity, into a celebration of disease instead of health, sensuality instead of austerity, death instead of life. Under the seductive tutelage of the flaccid and careless Clavdia and the Rhadamanthine Behrens, he comes increasingly to see the humanistic as an enemy of the “human” and the “spirituel” way to life, one which is really a way to death. In the Walpurgis-Night—itself an obvious borrowing from Goethe’s Faust, as was the orgiastic dream of Aschenbach in Death in Venice even earlier—Hans turns finally from Settembrini’s humanistic pedagogy to his uninhibited celebration of the thou with Clavdia. He is moving, in his own modest way, in the direction Adrian later took so wholeheartedly.

But this is as far as Hans can venture before another movement is instituted. For shortly after the Walpurgis-Night this spirituel movement calls up its own purified incarnation in that early version of Leverkühn, Leo Naphta. Clavdia, with her human—if deathly—warmth, is gone, and this openly diabolical creature is what Hans faces in her stead. However persuasive, this vision is too much for the still-balanced Hans. He sees in Naphta the logical consequence of his recent direction and must turn aside. But in those several long—too long—debates he witnesses between Naphta and Settembrini, Hans knows that while he may turn in revulsion from Naphta, he has come too far merely to bounce back to the spirit of Carducci. In the last pages before the scene in the snow, Hans comes most clearly to perceive the meaninglessness of their polemics as the extremes meet and cross each other while contradicting themselves. Suddenly Settembrini seems the othodox and Naphta the freethinker as all the categories become confused, identity appears everywhere—especially among opposites—and only the spirit of dispute keeps the pseudo dialogue going.

The critical scene in the snow is needed to move Hans beyond the empty polemics of pompous talkers representing bankrupt extremes. Hans must find his way back to life from death—and through death. He does it in “the anti-organic, the life-denying” snow (480), the “wild inhumanity” (476) of its mathematical perfection threatening his death with the indifferent and infinite fury of the Lawrentian snow we have seen. Hans retraces his oscillations between Naphta and Settembrini, matching an anti-bourgeois impulse to succumb to self-destruction with the humanistic, purely “ethical reaction.” And he feels “as often after a colloquy with Settembrini and Naphta, only to a far greater degree: dazed and tipsy, giddy, a-tremble with excitement” (485).

You went in a circle, gave yourself endless trouble under the delusion that you were accomplishing something, and all the time you were simply describing some great silly arc that would turn back to where it had its beginning, like the riddling year itself. You wandered about, without getting home. (487)

But with his idyllic dream in the snow Hans seems at last to move forward, and toward home. The pastoralism of the scene is pure and purely Apollonian: the “children of the sun” are clearly an answer to the darkly Dionysian release of the Walpurgis-Night. Yet they are no projection of Settembrini’s humanism but live in innocence with a simple and yet intelligent immediacy of unsullied sense: “A dignity, even a gravity, was held, as it were, in solution in their lightest mood, perceptible only as an ineffable spiritual influence, a high seriousness without austerity, a reasoned goodness conditioning every act” (492). But the smiling boy who smiles no longer leads Hans with solemn eyes to witness with him the dismemberment of the child by the hags. Hans awakens ready to save himself from the snow, freed from the invertible extremes. He is newly dedicated neither to reason nor to recklessness, neither to humanism nor to terrorism, but to life and love and the human, always recognizing their kinship to death and to the obscene horrors which the sensual and the diseased can lead to even as they lead also to the profound assertion of life. Here Hans would seem to have attained heights far more inclusive, humanly admissible, and durable than those attained during the short-lived Walpurgis-Night. But these are illusory too, however persuasive their dialectical resolution.

The blood sacrifice is shortly played out for Hans in reality as he witnesses the death of the kindly, courageous, upright Joachim, his “large and mild eyes” now “larger and deeper, with a musing, yes, we must even say an ominous expression …” (519). As Hans is “disquieted,” we know that this is a projection of the snow dream and Joachim a projection of the “lovely boy” whose eyes changed everything for Hans. Now life and love must follow closely too as Clavdia reappears bringing Peeperkorn with her. And Hans’s dream begins to fail. The perfection of life that transcends the discursive imperfections of Settembrini and Naphta finds its extension, its distorted incarnation, in the mighty “personality,” possessor and bestower of the most sacred thou, Mynheer Peeperkorn. In his futility he fails it just as Hans’s earlier guides failed their own representations. From now on Hans will come upon much blood sacrifice, culminating in the all-engulfing blood bath at the end, and will come only fleetingly, as in a dream, upon the blessed love of which he dreamed—only long enough to be teased by it and its unattainability.

Even the monumental failure of Peeperkorn, parody of Hans’s highest and all-resolving movement, cannot discredit it for him and send him searching elsewhere. As Mann’s final words are meant to tell us, Hans still tries to remain true to his dream in the snow. But the world of the Flatlands and of the Mountain are working in other ways. All that is left is ennui, unhealthy mysticism, the hysteria of hatred, and the blowup. Ever since the mockery of the snow dream in the bitter reality of the magnificent Peeperkorn, Hans has been sliding downhill on his Mountain until it joins the Flatlands in its universal blood sacrifice: “That historic thunder-peal, of which we speak with bated breath, made the foundations of the earth to shake; but for us it was the shock that fired the mine beneath the magic mountain, and set our sleeper ungently outside the gates” (709). The Mountain was as busy preparing appropriate conditions as the Flatlands were. After all, “The Thunderbolt” follows the Mountain’s “Hysterica Passio.” The world has caught up with the Magic Mountain. As they meet, we are shown that after all the Mountain was illusory: it always was a rarefied reflection of the real world, an extreme abstraction of the dialectics of its history—like all aesthetic symbols an intensification of reality because it is lived at a higher temperature, at fever pitch. And Mann ends his history, the story of Western culture into the madness of the First World War, on the darkest of all notes, although in his prayerful farewell tribute to Hans and his human capacity for love he tries to manage the kind of inversion of extremities that later, in Doctor Faustus, was to allow light to emerge. But how is Hans, without extremity and total commitment, to manage it? Can his simplicity so serve?

The dream of love that Hans dreamed in the snow—of love that comes through death but remains as sovereign over death and in the face of death—seems, for all its promise of conclusiveness, at last no more than dream, and illusory. Unlike Ivan Karamazov, Hans seems prepared to accept God’s ticket to paradise despite the blood sacrifice, prepared to become a child of the sun “in silent recognition of that horror” (495). But his subsequent experience cannot sustain this momentary breakthrough. There are moments of recall, but moments only. There is his affectionate and fully comprehending farewell to the heroic Joachim in the soldier’s quiet tragedy. There is the thou he achieves with Peeperkorn, as he had achieved it with Clavdia, before the pure “personality” announces his futility before Hans and the universe; but Peeperkorn abdicates and Clavdia withdraws. There is the discovery in Schubert’s “Linden-tree” of another momentary symbol of his dream of “self-conquest,” of returning through death to the “all-too-earthly” kingdom of life with “the new word of love and the future” (653). But “degenerated to a piece of gramophone music played by electricity” (653), it was doomed to fade.

These, then, were the “moments” our narrator speaks of at the close as, using the thou, he bids farewell to Hans, marching off into dubious battle—moments “when out of death, and the rebellion of the flesh, there came to thee, as thou tookest stock of thyself, a dream of love” (716). But we have seen how unsubstantial they were, how unlikely this “human,” this “spirituel” synthesis was, how factitious even if so devoutly to be wished for. But as our narrator withdraws, asking whether “out of this extremity of fever” (and could he not as well have said “out of this fever of extremity”?) “may it be that Love one day shall mount” (716), we must wonder what we have seen in Hans’s meanderings that can make this hope more than a wistfully wishful one. Or is it not a finally empty dialectic that has no dramatic context?

In The Magic Mountain we have the recapitulation of the history of one kind of novel, one that is intrinsically secure from the final surrender to extremity that yields the tragic. For in it we have the breadth, the patient expansiveness of the epic that in fiction leads through the picaresque to the Bildungsroman. It rejects narrow intensity for maturity with all its tolerance. Addressing Hans at the end, the narrator acknowledges, “We have told [your tale] for its own sake, not for yours, for you were simple. But after all, it was your story, it befell you, you must have more in you than we thought …” (715). But does he have enough—even, finally, for Mann? Perhaps Mann’s need to create Leverkühn suggests that he does not. It may be that Hans, as “life’s delicate child,” as the “stock-taking” “joli bourgeois,” simply has not risked enough to earn the stature needed for vision and for pronouncement. Even at the momentary break-through that Hans is persuaded of under the spell of the “Linden-tree,” Mann must make certain concessions:

May we take it that our simple hero, after so many years of hermetic-pedagogic discipline, of ascent from one stage of being to another, has now reached a point where he is conscious of the “meaningfulness” of his love and the object of it? We assert, we record, that he has.… The truth was that his very destiny had been marked by stages, adventures, insights, and these flung up in his mind suitable themes for his “stock-taking” activities, and these, in their turn, ripened him into an intuitional critic of this sphere, of this its absolutely exquisite image, and his love of it. To the point even that he was quite capable of bringing up all three as objects of his conscientious scruples! (651)

Hans remains “simple” and “conscientious,” the “critic” to the end. The complexity of his experience cannot subdue him to itself, cannot finally contaminate him. And that Mann returned to create Doctor Faustus may be his admission that The Magic Mountain is a partial failure, that Hans is not protagonist enough to engage extremity conclusively. “Love” is a big and deep word for the middling Hans, perhaps for anyone less than Adrian—if one is to arrive at even the merest possibility of it without cheating it of its bigness and deepness and so reducing it from the richly and darkly spirituel “human” world to the shabbily humanistic one. If this love can be earned, not through synthesis, but only through the miracle of inversion, then only he can earn it who, as exceptional, can summon from within an extremity to match the extremity that is imposed upon him. It takes the uniqueness, the creativity, the willfulness of genius to do what is beyond the simple, ordinary student of experience: it takes one who walks in the tradition of Oedipus more than in the tradition of Odysseus. For the peace of Ithaca is different from the peace of Colonus.

It is significant that Doctor Faustus as well as The Magic Mountain ends with the narrator speaking lovingly to his protagonist, addressing him with the thou that various characters in both novels have worked hard to earn the right to use. In both cases here is evidence of the narrator’s final desperation to leave us persuaded of the possibility that has been so undermined by the convincing bleakness of all that has gone before. Coupling Adrian’s fate and promise with Germany’s as he echoes the silence of the “light in the night,” Zeitblom closes with the prayer: “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!’” (510). But Zeitblom is more than mere narrator, like the nameless voice who speaks to us in The Magic Mountain. He is Adrian’s oldest and most faithful friend, the Wagner to Adrian’s Faust. Appropriately named Serenus, the mildly Catholic scholar of the classics is always mildly humanistic, a markedly qualified version—a dwindling—of Settembrini and Settembrinian presumption. Yet he can always react with the authority of civilization against Adrian’s waywardness, even as, through his Boswell-like devotion and admiration, he proves his own devotion—however vicarious—to the demonic. And beyond these functions he supplies, out of all measure to his stature, the love of boundless capacity. In enumerating earlier those who almost lured Adrian back to the human realm, I did not speak of the self-effacing Zeitblom whose presence it is so easy to overlook—as Adrian overlooked it—but who, from his right earned in childhood to use the du, can claim a kind of priority of love that his unwavering affection, despite all, extended to the everlasting. For his love, conferred by an almost natural right, was there at the first, lingered even beyond the last, and so was without end.

There is also the simple devotion of Adrian’s mother that is there at the first and at the last. She has been the eternal mother, simple and earthy, as his father has been the first representative of the uncanny. These are the oppositions which battle to become his exclusive inheritance so as to claim his exclusive allegiance. And we see from the first how mixed within him they are, his mother’s appearance and musicality, his father’s migraine and mysticism, and the eyes a blend of the two. Adrian, at his most driven, cannot leave the symbols of home and mother, so that he must find a place to spend his adult life that is a close replica of his family home in Buchel and that provides him in Frau Schweigestill a foster mother who has all the requisite and reminiscent qualities. It is she who utters the last words in Adrian’s farewell scene with his companions, words of scorn directed at his shallow and shocked guests and of an unlimited compassion showered upon her errant foster child:

Let me see the back of ye, all and sundry! City folk all, with not a smitch of understanding, and there’s need of that here! Talked about th’everlasting mercy, poor soul, I don’t know if it goes ’s far’s that, but human understanding, believe me, that doos! (503)

This recalls us to Adrian’s dispute with the devil, echoed in his last words, in which, on the one hand, the possibility of grace increases with the sinner’s depravity and, on the other, the awareness of this strange inversion precludes its accessibility to him—unless, of course, by increasing his depravity it makes salvation even more likely, except that … and on and on, round and round it goes, this “atrocious competition” between the sinner’s speculation and God’s Goodness. As we have seen, it is even further complicated by Nepomuk’s death, the final desperation beyond parody, and the “expressiveness” that gives despair a voice. Frau Schweigestill’s words suggest that the competitive chain is not infinite after all and that grace will have the last word—the totally and simply human grace of duty and devotion, of an “understanding” that passeth all understanding. It is this “understanding” beyond all reason, this true realization of the thou, that fosters Zeitblom’s final words of prayer for a mercy that his own compassion has already granted. For Serenus has earlier assured us that this human love—that hears “with the throat,” as Kyo says—this love that cannot be affected by what the object of that love “has done” is a version of the Everlasting Love:

My life, insignificant but capable of fascination and devotion, has been dedicated to my love for a great German man and artist. It was always a love full of fear and dread, yet eternally faithful to this German whose inscrutable guiltiness and awful end had no power to affect my feeling for him—such love it may be as is only a reflection of the everlasting mercy. (452)

It had to be that the “Everlasting Goodness” with its infinite mercy would win the competition since, as everlasting, it necessarily outlasts the depravity that speculation only increases. Still it is only a moderate victory—a victory in retreat from the tragic—that it can win, using such mild instruments of human decency as Zeitblom and Frau Schweigestill. For the giant unrepentant figure of Adrian looms, towering beyond them and their miraculous gift of grace as it towers beyond Hans Castorp and his human hopes, threatening to continue rejecting all as temptation and to continue the competition from beyond the grave, from the underworld that has claimed him as he has claimed it uniquely as his own. So, looked at from the other-than-human side, the competition may not be ended after all, and every human miracle may be dissolved. For in Adrian’s “non-Euclidean” world, any retreat from extremity would also be a giving up of the impossible salvation that is the only sort he can accept. The competition between the tragic and the human realms has created the tensions of Mann’s most characteristic work; and here at the very end his wisdom must leave it in its irreducible Manichaean dualism. Those persuasive homely pieties, which may have served at the end of Hans Castorp’s “stock-taking” education, can be sounded in Doctor Faustus only when Adrian is removed from the stage. But even then the classic and human acceptance must compete with the shrill glissando echoes of Adrian’s immortal music and the tragic perseverance of his speculation that insist still on the mockery of fierce and willful denial.

It was an old-new world of revolutionary reaction, in which the values bound up with the idea of the individual—shall we say truth, freedom, law, reason?—were entirely rejected and shorn of power, or else had taken on a meaning quite different from that given them for centuries. Wrenched away from the washed-out theoretic, based on the relative and pumped full of fresh blood, they were referred to the far higher court of violence, authority, the dictatorship of belief—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 mediaevally 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. There it was: progress and reaction, the old and the new, the past and the future became one; the political Right more and more coincided with the Left. (368)

But, though Zeitblom’s every written word is, like the story he tells, conditioned by the historical moment out of which it issues, I shall steer clear of this yet further symbolic level of the complex book since my interest is with Adrian as tragic visionary rather than with the tragic destiny of Western culture through its destructive, avant-garde representative, Germany.

1 From Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1948). Copyright 1948, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. All page references are to this edition. Excerpts are reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

2 Among the many impressive treatments of his difficult Doctor Faustus, as the pages that follow will indicate, I found most illuminating Joseph Frank’s “Reaction as Progress: or, the Devil’s Domain,” Hudson Review, II (1949), 38–53; and Erich Heller’s “Parody, Tragic and Comic: Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Felix Krull,” Sewanee Review, LXVI (1958), 519–546, later printed as the last chapter of The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958). While the second appeared after my own essay was mainly written, I found many of my ideas reflected and clarified in it.

3 One could easily trace the extent to which the extremity of Adrian as man and as composer is a reflection of the political extremity of Germany that leads to nazism. The political discussions of Kridwiss, Breisacher, and company indicate that Leo Naphta of The Magic Mountain is still with us. They reveal the same anti-humanism, one which justifies old Zeitblom’s closing doubts about the future and “unity in uprightness.” Again there is the dangerous circularity, so subversive of human values in its identifying of extremes. Just one of many passages will serve:

4 This notion finds an echo in my final chapter where I try to relate the author’s aesthetic transcendence of the dark vision to his thematic transcendence of it.

5 From “The Merging Parallels: Mann’s Doctor Faustus” by Philip Blair Rice, Kenyon Review, XI (1949), 199–217.

6 From The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1951). Copyright 1927, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. All page references are to the 1951 edition. Excerpts are reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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