Watling Essay


The Emigration of Doktor Faustus

            In her book Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Sources and Structure of a Novel, Guntilla Bergsten summarizes the various sources behind Mann’s Doktor Faustus, a work that is arguably most representative of Mann’s experience in exile. However, Bergsten’s analysis portrays Mann’s composition of Doktor Faustus as solipsistically German, characterizing Mann’s diverse experiences in non-German Europe and the United States—the place of Mann’s longest period of residence outside of Germany—as wholly coincidental to the genesis of Doktor Faustus. In the Appendix of her book, Bergsten cites only a handful of possible sources from European countries outside of Germany that could have played a role in Mann’s creation of Doktor Faustus. Bergsten’s Appendix fails to identify any American sources at all. In the foreword to Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Bergsten makes the first of very few admissions that Mann wrote Doctor Faustus in America:

Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is a book of paradoxes, and one of them is that this the most German of all Mann’s novels was written in the United States at a time when that country was engaged in war with the writer’s own fatherland. (vii)


Though this excerpt from Bergsten’s foreword ostensibly leaves open the very complicated question of Mann’s national and cultural identity, it seems that Bergsten ultimately sees Mann’s identity as closed, complete, German: “He could never be anything more than a guest in America, for this young country would never comprehend a spokesman of the old Europe” (6). Bergsten’s reading of Mann’s national identity not only ignores his idiosyncratic, thirteen-year residence in the United States (eight years of which he spent as a citizen!), but also restricts our reading of works which Mann completed while living in America. Doktor Faustus does not merely draw upon the cultural elements of Mann’s native Germany, but is characterized by a broader palette, which incorporates a plurality of Mann’s ideas and experiences as an American citizen and as a de facto leader of an émigré community made up not only of Germans, but also of intellectuals and artists from many nations affected by World War II. In this essay, I want to reopen the question of the ground upon which the author stood—to introduce the neglected American source texts Mann read into the presently Germanocentric body of Doktor Faustus criticism through a careful examination of his diaries and letters in order to place Mann within the larger tradition of American literature and philosophy. Moreover, I will present Mann’s self-conception of his national identity in a much more holistic fashion, not as a German writing in exile, but as a former citizen of greater Europe who, for thirteen years, was actively engaged in American political and cultural society and an author who integrated the American ideology into his literary corpus.

            Mann’s Doktor Faustus and his experiences in the United States are inseparable from one another. Although, according to Genesis of a Novel, Mann did not formally begin writing Doktor Faustus until May 23, 1943, his personal conception of the Faust myth and his arrival to America are curiously linked. In a diary entry dated September 23, 1938, from on board a Dutch ship called the Nieuw Amsterdam, less than a day before Mann gained entry into the United States in New York, Mann writes, “Auf Deck “Faust” gearbeitet” (294). The “Faust” in question is an essay entitled “Goethe’s Faust”, an essay that was first “delivered in English as a public lecture at Princeton University in 1938” (Essays of Three Decades, 3). Mann’s thesis involves biographical interpretation of the peculiar relationship between the high-minded eccentric, Faust, and the daemonic “worldling”, Mephistopheles, a relationship Mann argues is to be seen as a dialectical closet-drama of Goethe’s own soul. However, as much as Mann reads Faust and Mephistopheles as Goethe’s dramatic masks, there are a few moments in the essay that smack of the European political strife leading up to World War II from which Mann was fleeing at the moment of this essay’s composition, leading us to believe that Mann’s rendition of Goethe was his dramatic mask. While the bulk of “Goethe’s Faust” pertains to Mann’s humanist ideals, the conclusion of the lecture marks an acutely polemical departure:

For our time, which seems to have fallen a helpless prey to evil and cynicism, how welcome were some kindly greatness, which should know what man needs and instead of offering him mocking sophisms, could give him serious advice in his necessities! A “clear word” and a benevolent, pointing out the better course, seems powerless today; world events pass all such over with brutal disregard. But let us hold fast to the anti-diabolic faith, that mankind has after all a “keen hearing,” and that words born of one’s own striving may do it good and not perish from its heart. (42)


Here we must make the distinction between the “daemonic” and the “diabolic” to understand the invective Mann offered his audience at Princeton. The “daemonic” refers to the street-wise, wayfaring Mephistopheles who, though traditionally associated with the Christian devil, is distinguished by Mann as a figure whose traits correspond better genealogically to the “pagan Wotan” than to the Christian Satan and is thus more endearing to the humanist’s dual-natured soul (23). Therefore it is accurate to say that Mann posits Goethe’s humanism as a subtle consonance of the spiritual and the daemonic, the “anti-diabolic faith” to which we must hold fast (42). The “diabolic,” on the other hand, is an epithet reserved for Hitler and his council, who (although they ironically saw themselves as the revivers of the Norse religion, albeit in a much more bureaucratic form) were comparable to the Christian devil, the evil of evils, an epithet up to which they would live.

            In light of “Goethe’s Faust”, I wish to portray Mann’s interest in the daemonic Mephistopheles as a concealed expression of his anxiety over selling his soul to America, the capricious antithesis to his Faustian, European intellect. Let us consider the quintessence of Goethe’s tragedy:

                        Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach, in meiner Brust,

                        Die eine will sich die von der andern trennen:

                        Die eine hält, in derber Liebeslust,

                        Sich an die Welt mit klammernden Organen;

                        Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dunst

                        Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen.

                        O gibt es Geister in der Luft,

                        Die zwischen Erd und Himmel herschennd weben (1112-1119)


Faust is torn between his insatiable hunger for spiritual knowledge and an equal thirst for bodily pleasures, a desire which Mephistopheles promises he has the power to satisfy by conferring upon Faust the worldly power and freedom with which he can sin to his heart’s content. However, Goethe develops the dialectical relationship between Faust’s desires and Mephistopheles’ wish to damn Faust’s soul to the point where the infinitude of Faust’s urges gives him total control over Mephistopheles’ power because the outcome of the demon’s wager with God is limited by the ironically finite consignment of Faust to the eternal fires of Hell. It is in Faust’s refusal to believe that the longings of his bipartite soul can be satisfied at all that he approaches the conception of freedom that Mann saw in America. Though, among his fellow émigrés, Mann often expressed a certain contempt for Americans’ intellectual inferiority and their obsession with the system of commercial interactions that could ensure a certain bodily security (or even pleasure), it is clear in Doktor Faustus and his diaries that Mann was enchanted by the American idea of freedom, one that is not far removed from its Faustian variety. While the European community residing in the U.S. at this time wished to view Mann as an undeniably German author, Mann himself saw his own soul as bipartite and indescribable as Faust’s. America became an opportunity for Mann to experience personal transcendence in that, for a time, he could conceive of himself as apart from father Germany.

            Mann’s conflations of the daemonic sort of Romantic freedom and that pertaining to the Founding Fathers is explicit in his correspondence and the research for his Deutscher Hörer! speeches contained in his diaries. On January 1, 1943, just months before Mann began work on Doktor Faustus, he received a letter from Agnes E. Meyer comparing his Joseph to a particular moment in the poetry of William Blake:

Wurde von der Library of Congress gebeten, eine dunkle Stelle aus William Blakes Milton-Gedicht zu deuten. Nimmt an, daß Blake die Geschichten Josephs und Moses mit einander vermischt hat und auf die Legende von dem israelitischen Stamm anspielt, aus dem das englische Volk hervorgegangen sein soll. (703)


The poem to which Meyer is referring is Blake’s Milton: a Poem, specifically the verses: “And Palamabron, thou rememberest when Joseph, an infant;/ Stolen from his nurses cradle wrapd in needle-work/ Of emblematic texture, was sold to the Amelekite…” (24.17-19). Meyer compares Blake’s representation of Milton to Mann’s representation of Joseph because of Blake’s confused double-association of Milton with both Joseph and Moses. This is significant because it speaks to how Mann employed the biblical figure of Joseph, a pastoral immigrant to the ‘big-city’, hedonistic society of Ancient Egypt, to cope with his estrangement from his homeland and his subsequent life in America, his own peculiar Egypt. What complicates matters more is that Mann would, in 1944, himself publish his account of the Moses story in Das Gesetz. Although critics have traditionally associated Mann’s Moses with Adolf Hitler, we should not forget the biblical relationship between the figures of Joseph and Moses: Joseph, though arguably less pious than Moses, for millennia served as an example to Jews living in exile from the Holy Land, providing them with an appropriate example of a virtuous, Jewish immigrant who must reside permanently in this state of exile; Moses stood for the Jews’ hope to return to Israel, serving as an example of the virtuous emigrant. Mann’s soul contains both the worldly Joseph and the otherworldly Moses, immigrant and emigrant, an identity marked by its lack of potential to resolve itself. These two figures contain the Faustian tragedy of Mann’s national and cultural identity. Despite this internal irresolution, Mann’s dual identity imbues him with the same Romantic freedom possessed by Faust. Meyer’s letter not only sheds light on Mann’s dilemma as a German-American producer of culture, but also reveals the Romantic vocabulary through which he imagined his experience in America as daemonic. We know that Mann was familiar with Blake’s poetry because the Mann library in Zürich houses a copy of The Poetry and Prose of William Blake that was given to Mann by W. H. Auden and contains “numerous pencil marks of the kind Mann frequently made when reading books that particularly interested him” (Davies, “Blake set to music—Adrian Leverkühn). Much of Blake’s oeuvre deals with an epic rebellion against the forces of the heavenly Albion, which has been consistently shown to refer to England. Blake’s Milton embodies this struggle, as Blake bestows upon him the qualities of his own Lucifer from Paradise Lost, making him the rebellious son of Albion. Albion is not unique to Milton: a Poem, however, but is also present in Blake’s America: a Prophecy. I believe that Mann’s idea of American freedom hinges upon an understanding of Blake’s poetic America as much as Faust. In the Praeludium to America: a Prophecy, Orc, the incarnation of Blake’s conception of the tempestuous American spirit, rapes Urthona, consummating his revolt against the pure, but tyrannical forces of Albion, the ancient name of England. Mann would have identified with the sins of Orc against Albion: the rape of Urthona constitutes an epic break from the tyranny of Old Europe. Though Mann’s European contemporaries scoffed at the ways in which Americans exercised their freedom, their narcissistic Euro-centrism was in the process of culminating into its most radical expressions, National Socialism. America offered Mann not only the possibility to escape Nazi persecution, but also the opportunity to go outside the fiercely intellectual, but stifling sphere European society into the realm which embodied Blakean freedom.

            Mann found the pragmatic, political expression of Blake and Goethe’s Romantic notion of freedom in The Declaration of Independence. It is hard to understand how Mann criticism has effectively overlooked Mann’s fascination with The Declaration and his curiosity concerning the document’s author, Thomas Jefferson. During World War II, Mann was not only actively researching and writing Joseph the Provider and Doktor Faustus, but several political speeches (in both English and German) directed to American and European audiences, as well. While the speeches for the American audiences obviously drew upon the discourse of the American independence, I think it is even more significant that Deutsche Hörer! and the speeches directed to the European nations as a whole deployed the discourse of the American Revolution to make Europeans aware of the egregious offenses of the Nazis against freedom and individual rights and suggested, pending the end of the war, that any future European society should be modeled upon The Declaration, a document that ironically was meant to be anti-European. Mann’s Romantic vision of the Founding Fathers heavily affected his idea of a new European political model based on individual liberty rather than the nationalist tendencies which brought about both World Wars—although the founders of America came from an almost unanimously British ethnic background, their values heralded the dissolution of any ethnic basis behind a political model whose sole goal was to foster a society that protected the individual. In Two Visions of Peace, an oration directed to the “poor German people”, Mann outlines the follies of European society and the corrective force of American optimism:

It must disappear. The egotism of nations must make sacrifices which imply the break-up of the idea of national sovereignty, yes, of the national idea itself. The goal of this war, and its fruits, must be peace which is at last worthy of the name; a peace which no longer serves as a shield for atavistic “history-making” mummery but is the firm foundation of a community of free peoples who are yet responsible to one another under a commonly binding moral law. (1028)


That Mann’s words suggest that there was a goal to World War II imbues his text with a very American purpose, especially if we consider that many of these speeches were broadcast by radio to Germany illegally. Mann locates the struggles of German dissenters under the National Socialist Party within the dramatic sphere of the American Revolution. His subversive communication with the German people was intended to effectively prepare his inherently nationalist fatherland to adopt the revolutionary principles of the Founding Fathers, not only to sabotage the German war effort, but also to allow Germany to envision the possibility of redemption without guilt following the end of the war.

            Mann’s dependence on Jefferson’s political thought becomes more apparent in the propagandist texts he produced in 1943—coinciding with the inception of Doktor Faustus. Mann mentions Jefferson three separate times in his diary during 1943: “Gelesen über Jefferson in Büchern aus der Bibliothek…Nachmittags über Jefferson…Beschäftigung mit van Loons Buch über Jefferson…” (529, 531, & 566). “Van Loons Buch”, one of the many titles penned by the popular Dutch-American biographer, Hendrik Willem van Loon, as well as Mann’s speeches to Australia and Germany, shows that Mann was greatly engaged with Jeffersonian thought and moreover, familiar with early American history, a familiarity which Bergsten consistently ignores or denies. Mann’s choice of Jefferson as a rhetorical character in his speeches is an obvious one. The Europhilic Jefferson was the most palatable to his bourgeois, European audience because his deep sympathy for the revolutionary factions of France distinguishes him as a concrete, historical example of an American who is concerned with the political fates of foreign peoples. It is clear that Mann thought of his political activism as an expansion of the jurisdiction of the “we” of the Declaration—“we,” not merely the Americans, but the citizens of the world, “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (U.S. History). There is a particular passage which Mann recycled in his speeches over the course of the war which reflects his transposition of Jeffersonian ideals from the Americans onto Europe and the rest of the world:

But the American thought of the claim of happiness does not contradict the suffering innate in all earthly life; it does not impiously deny the religious urge for salvation of man. What it denies is rather the suffering caused by man’s own laziness and folly, the suffering that is an insult to human reason and honour, and whose intelligent abolition is the duty before God as well as before man. At the basis of the American idea of human right to happiness is the distinction between inevitable and definitely avoidable, indeed scandalous suffering; it is an idea inspired by faith in social progress, in the duty to better the conditions of life on earth—an idea inspired by kindness. (1091)


Kindness was indeed, for Mann, the human virtue most expressed in the “Präambel” to The Declaration, and was consequently the quality which he believed the Europeans most lacked. Despite the Romantically sentimental tone of a word like “kindness,” I wish to assert, despite the trends in Mann criticism, that Mann’s adoption of American ideals was wholly sincere. Critics, like Bergsten, often write off Mann’s political speeches as well-intentioned, but founded upon a double standard. It is true that Mann often invokes God and the democratic values of Christianity, despite publically describing himself as a humanist and privately harboring thoughts that run contrary to Christian morals. However, I believe that his essay on Goethe’s Faust, as well as Mann’s preoccupation with Goethe in general, encourages us to look toward his aesthetic fascinations to verify his dedication to the American values of individual liberty. How could Mann have internally distanced himself from the principles set down in “The Preamble” if he had already accepted Faust’s final oration in Part II of the tragedy? In the face of death, Faust uses his last words to express his admiration of freedom:

                        Ja! Diesem Sinne bin ich ganz ergeben,

                        Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluß:

                        Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben,

                        Der täglich sie erobern muß.

                        Und so verbringt, umrungen von Gefahr,

                        Hier Kindheit, Mann und Greis sein tüchtig Jahr.

                        Solch ein Gewimmel möcht ich sehn,

                        Auf freiem Grund mit Freiem Volke stehn.

                        Zum Augenblicke dürft ich sagen:

                        Verweile doch, du bist so schön!

                        Es kann die Spur von meinen Erdetagen

                        Nicht in Äonen untergehen.—

                        Im Vorgefühl von solchem höhen Glück

                        Genieß ich jetzt den höchsten Augenblick. (11573-87)


Instead of viewing Mann’s expropriation of The Declaration as an instrumental ploy to serve the goal of ending Hitler’s hold on Europe, we should, in contrast, consider Mann’s speeches as a subtle synthesis of his Romantic literary ideals with his brief, but profound experience of American democracy.

            What has American democracy to with the literary texts produced by Mann during this time? Mann clearly states in his radio broadcasts to Germany the revolutionary character of his identity as a persecuted writer:

“America talks”,--but it is not an American whose voice you are hearing this time—it is a not-yet-American, an American in the making, who will soon have lived here long enough to be allowed to swear allegiance to this country. It is a German writer whose spiritual nature did not permit him to remain in Hitler Germany, who five years ago left for good the European continent fallen into servitude, and who, like many other European intellectual workers, has entrusted his life and work to this younger, more happily conditioned world. (1080)


With this statement, Mann makes an unambiguous dedication of his life and literary works perhaps not to the U.S. as a political entity, but to the American mission. It is in this moment that we see the bipartite soul of Thomas Mann: one part involved in an age-old cultural tradition; the other free to express itself within a society dedicated to the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness.

Mann’s dual identity as both a German and an American lies at the core of the structure of Doktor Faustus—the friendship of Serenus Zeitblom and Adrian Leverkühn. It has often been pointed out that Mann’s use of Zeitblom’s ‘biography’ of Adrian as the frame of the narrative expresses his deep guilt over not having somehow remained in Germany. What is more, some critics have even associated Adrian’s madness with the affliction of National Socialism upon Germany, as if Hitler’s pseudo-philosophy had caused Germany’s mind to degenerate like Adrian’s syphilis. Nevertheless, I do not believe this to be a wholly exhaustive interpretation of Leverkühn’s character, for it neglects Zeitblom’s heartfelt affection towards Adrian and Adrian’s relative innocence in comparison to the diabolical Nazis. Rather I believe that we should see Leverkühn as pertaining to the daemonic characteristic which Mann appends to Mephistopheles in “Goethe’s Faust.” If we accept this reading, we must begin to examine the character of Leverkühn as Mann’s expression of his newfound, American freedom loosely contained by the well-tempered structure provided by Zeitblom, a learned member of the bourgeoisie who is well instructed in what we might call the cultural baggage of Europe.

            The opening of Doktor Faustus is as enigmatic as Mann’s identity as a German-American author:

I wish to state quite definitely that it is by no means out of any wish to bring my own personality into the foreground that I preface with a few words about myself and my own affairs this report on the life of the departed Adrian Leverkühn. (3)


Just as an author’s work gives equal expression to his subject as much as it does to the author himself, it is impossible to conceive of Zeitblom without Adrian, and even more impossible to conceive of Mann without understanding these two friends. Zeitblom’s opening statement is entirely consistent with Mann’s diagnosis of Europe’s ills: if Adrian represents Mann’s Romantic idea of freedom, then Zeitblom’s act of narration is a desperate attempt of the German people to resurrect the memory of a “departed” freedom. Before we can really decipher Leverkühn as a symbol of Mann’s notion of what it means to be an American, we must first ask ourselves exactly how Zeitblom represents old Europe—from what is Adrian departing? Zeitblom stands in sharp contrast to Adrian because of his self-titled, professorial relationship to the arts, which complements Adrian’s great obsession with the dark realm of musical inspiration:

…a scholar and conjuratus of the “Latin host,” not lacking all contact with the arts …but a son of the Muses in that academic sense which by preference regards itself as descended from the German humanists of the time of the “Poets.” …the daemonic, little as I presume to deny its influence upon human life, I have at all times utterly foreign to my nature. Instinctively I have rejected it from my picture of the cosmos and never felt the slightest inclination rashly to open the door to the powers of darkness: arrogantly to challenge, or if they themselves ventured from their side, even to hold out my little finger to them. (4)


Zeitblom uses “daemonic”, the same word with which Mann describes Mephistopheles in “Goethe’s Faust”, to give some semblance of definition to the nether world of artistic inspiration. It is in this exact moment that Mann reveals Adrian’s Faustian potential, positioning Zeitblom as somehow resistant to any form of artistic expression because it implies a certain departure of the soul from the comfortable and respectable sphere of European society into a place which colors one’s soul, but removes it at the same time from what is considered decent. That Zeitblom is also a classicist allows us to see that the narrator of Doktor Faustus is a bastion of form that has been liquidated of any desire or ability to interact with the human imagination that is indispensable to any act of experimental or novel artistic creation. The Zeitblom who is without Adrian allows Mann to address the “sacrifices” he could have made to stay in Europe during the course of the war, but it is altogether clear that Mann believed there was something to gain in selling his soul to the Mephistophelean America. Zeitblom is all too bound to the social pressures of the Germany in which he is raised, identifying himself with the more than conventional, German humanist tradition as well as making his belief in Christianity very explicit by declaring that Adrian is “now resting in God” (3). Mann further uses Zeitblom’s Christian faith to involve him in the greater phenomenon of the European cultural tradition by making him a Roman Catholic:

Our family belonged to the small Catholic community of the town, the majority of its population of course being of the Lutheran confession. In particular my mother was a pious daughter of the Church, punctually fulfilling her religious duties, whereas my father, probably from the lack of time, was laxer in them, without in the least denying his solidarity, which indeed has also its political bearing, with the community of his faith. (7)


It is curious that Mann describes Catholicism here solely in terms of communal obligation and political necessity rather than having anything to do with faith in God and His church. This furthers Zeitblom’s role in symbolizing Europe as a whole in that Catholicism puts him in “solidarity” with a political organization that had once dominated the religious landscape of Europe and continues to have a presence in European society after the Protestant Reformation. Mann’s characterization of the religious attitude of Zeitblom’s parents also foreshadows the advent of National Socialism because of the total negation of faith by the no longer ulterior motives of social mobility and political presence. It is, so to speak, that the religion in which Zeitblom was raised is lacking is a necessary familiarity with daemonic dimension, for religion, as much as art, requires an interface with the unilluminated depths of the human imagination. At the time of the narration, Zeitblom is the frame which only has an imperfect, vestigial recollection of his soul and the artistic powers it once invoked, leaving mere unpublished biography of this departed soul behind.

            As affectionately as Mann identifies with the aging Zeitblom, who he modeled much after himself, we should note that Mann’s mission of Americanizing the Europe of the future is explicitly antagonistic to much of what Zeitblom represents—the overwhelming and irreconcilable prejudices held by the peoples of Europe which he claims in his political speeches were the catalyst for both World Wars. Zeitblom begins his account of Adrian’s life by casting the objectivity of his statements into serious doubt:

Indeed, my mind misgives me that I shall only be awakening the reader’s doubt whether he is in the right hands: whether, I mean, my whole existence does not disqualify me for a task dictated to me by my heart rather than by any true competence for the work. (3)


Though Mann’s diction is carefully chosen to compel us to feel a sort of warm sympathy towards Zeitblom’s task, we must realize that Mann is actually calling the attention of the careful reader so that he might read Doktor Faustus with a keen awareness of the age-old prejudices which distort Zeitblom’s biography. It is more than clear from the aforementioned passages that, although Zeitblom and Adrian are close childhood friends, he feels a strong social obligation to distance himself from the questionable morality of artistic expression. While one might argue that Zeitblom’s academic nature relieves the reader of any doubt as to the objectivity of his narrative, we should note a more sinister function of the academy—that it makes interpretations rather than letting the work speak for itself. This is not to say that all manifestations of academic interpretation are bad, but that academia, as Zeitblom himself understands it, should be completely removed from the world of the imagination. Academic criticism of the arts, while maybe not as creative a process as the arts themselves, still requires a great deal of imaginative thought to allow the critic to communicate with the work of art, to come to know of its intricacies and secrets. Zeitblom’s relationship to Adrian is the opposite of the ideal relationship between the artist and his critic: “I loved him, with tenderness and terror, with compassion and devoted admiration, and but little questioned whether he in the least returned my feeling” (5). Zeitblom’s analysis of Adrian is not a harmless case of seeing art as he wants to see it, but the act of contorting the facts so sharply that the artifacts of Adrian’s work become something so far removed from the sheer radicality of vision so as to mesh with and can be said to express the conventions that underlie Zeitblom’s European prejudices:

In the note assigning his sketches and journals there is expressed a friendly, objective, I might almost say a gracious confidence, certainly honourable to me, a belief in my conscientiousness, loyalty, and scrupulous care. (5)


If there is any character in Doktor Faustus who could be said to bear any ideological resemblance to Adolf Hitler, it is certainly not Leverkühn, rather Zeitblom himself. Zeitblom’s prejudicially revisionist exposition of Adrian’s life and work mirrors much of the academic work completed under the Nazi regime, in that, to justify Hitler’s pseudo-philosophy concerning the genesis and dissemination of the Aryan race before the modern Germanic peoples, it was necessary to present an ostensibly objective account of the historical development of this master race despite the fact that the peoples with which Hitler identified the Aryan race corresponds little to how we understand the historical development of the Indo-European peoples today, which in no way gives explicit preference to the Germanic stem of its family tree. We have but to examine Zeitblom’s self-provided credentials in light of Steiner’s thesis concerning the Nazis’ philological corruption of the German language:

For a man like me it is very hard, it affects him almost like wanton folly, to assume the attitude of a creative artist to a subject which is dear to him as life and burns him to express; I know not how to treat it with the artist’s easy mastery. Hence my too hasty entry into the distinction between pure and impure genius, a distinction the existence of which I recognize, only to ask myself at once whether it has a right to exist at all. Experience has forced me to ponder this problem so anxiously, so urgently, that at times, frightful to say, it has seemed to me that I should be driven beyond my proper and becoming level of thought, and myself experience and “impure” heightening of my natural gifts. (5)


Though Mann peppers this specific passage with myriad stylistic nuances to give it an air of colloquial humility, the question over the purity of genius (especially as Zeitblom writes from his “little study… at Freising of the Isar, on the 27th of May 1943”) becomes especially problematic. Mann realistically adapts his knowledge of the propagandistic discourse with which Hitler flooded wartime Germany to demonstrate exactly how much the concept of purity and racial hierarchy had trickled into even the most private spheres of German life by way of the German language itself. Zeitblom’s admission of the hastiness of his distinction of pure and impure genius is likewise problematic—it is as if the matter of purity had leaped from his pen almost undetected. What is this “experience” that has forced Zeitblom to “ponder this problem so anxiously”?  Zeitblom’s biography of Leverkühn, the linguistically infected document which stands as the sole testament to Zeitblom’s true opinion of Adrian, expresses a deep-seated conflict between his humane affection towards his childhood companion, whose musical style would no doubt have been denigrated by the Nazis (especially if we consider that Theodor Adorno and Arnold Schönberg influenced Mann’s description of Leverkühn’s fictional music), and his loyalty to the prejudices of European Nationalism, of which Nazism is the most absurd and terrifying expression. Is it that Zeitblom’s admission that Adrian’s story requires him to go beyond his “proper and becoming level of thought” reflects a certain humility in light of the complexity of Adrian’s work, or is it that he sees himself as a distinguished member of Hitler’s master race who should feel guilty over descending to this “impure” level of thought which is unbecoming to the Aryan man?

            By the end of Zeitblom’s narration, we find him temporally located near the end of World War II. The epilogue to Doktor Faustus allows us to see that, through the process of narrating the events of Adrian’s life, Zeitblom has undergone a change of heart regarding his allegiance to Hitler’s Germany. While Mann never identifies Zeitblom as a card-carrying Nazi, his ambivalence toward politics at the beginning of the novel signals a definite complacency with Nazism and, in its absence from the text of a novel whose author was publically involved with the problem of Nazism, regards Nazism as a phenomenon that could simply be ignored in favor of a quiet, literary undertaking. Zeitblom gives this benediction over the completed account of Leverkühn’s life:

It is finished. An old man, bent, well-nigh broken by the horrors of the times in which he wrote and those which were the burden of his writing, looks with dubious satisfaction on the high stack of teeming paper which is the work of his industry, the product of these years filled to running over with past memories and present events. A task has been mastered, for which by nature I was not the man, to which I was not born, but rather called by love and loyalty—and by my status as eyewitness. What these can accomplish, what devotion can do, that has been done—I must needs be content. (504)


This passage comes across as Zeitblom’s heartfelt confession of hesitancy, hesitancy over the degree of love which he feels towards his deceased friend and his initial vacillation in the face of Nazism. No longer does he stand as the resigned academic attempting to provide an objective account of his friend while the Nazi war machine rages outside the window of his study—he realizes that his and Adrian’s story is not some relic of a bygone past, but rather an amalgam of history and a sense of what is right imbued with a indubitable grace through the shameful, but necessary recognition of the present moment. These are the words of a man who realizes, as late as Faust, the error of his ways. Zeitblom’s epilogue confirms the soullessness of modernity and Germany’s pact with the devil. Yet Zeitblom, the old Europe, finds redemption through invoking the memory of the Leverkühn, the daemonic soul which, though mysterious in its nature, once imparted to its bodily vessel the American virtue which Mann calls kindness.

The Politics of Music

Critics of Doktor Faustus often read the novel as an allegory for twentieth century German politics, particularly because of the way Mann uses Leverkühn to juxtapose Arnold Schönberg’s atonal, twelve-tone method of composition and the transition from the democratic atmosphere of the Weimar Republic to the totalitarian National Socialist regime. Many of these critics want to identify Leverkühn and his work with either Germany’s sociopolitical ‘health’ or simply to Hitler himself, allowing Mann representation of Adrian’s musical experiments to be read as a simple progression from the political upheaval following Germany’s defeat in World War I to fascism. Evelyn Cobley explains the political dimension of Adrian’s progression from free atonal music to twelve-tone composition as follows:

If we read Leverkühn’s aesthetic aspirations as symptomatic of Germany’s desire to break with its feudal past, then the moment of ‘free atonality’ could be identified with the emancipatory hopes riding on democratic reforms whose culmination was the Weimar Republic… free atonality with the Weimar Republic and aesthetic high modernism, and twelve-tone technique with fascism and late capitalism… (“Breakthrough into Atonality (or Postmodernism)”, 158)


Although Cobley is justified in associating Schönberg and Stravinsky’s atonal revolution with the “emancipatory hopes” of Weimar Germany, I believe her treatment of twelve-tone composition as fascist tries too hard to force Doktor Faustus into a Neo-Marxist vision of historical progression which attempts to account for fascism’s deviation from the progression originally advanced by Marx. Cobley’s comparison of the lack of order in atonal music to the Weimar Republic, too, is at fault because it blurs line between revolution and democracy. Atonal music is revolutionary in that refutes the old hierarchy of the tonic and the dominant, but has no other characteristics by itself except that it is different from the prior order. The twelve-tone method, however, is an atonal variety of music which has an order imposed on it, much like a constitutional democracy. In Reason & Horror, Morton Schoolman outlines one possible reading twelve-tone composition as an expression of democratic ideals:

If the row and its variations, identity and it nonidentity, sameness and its difference can develop potentially limitless forms…are not the developmental tendencies of the row toward knowledge of difference; toward permitting difference to be articulated as it is, in-itself…toward reconciliation? (144)


The tone row does not, as Cobley insists, signify a radical restructuring of atonal music, but rather gives an atonal just enough organization around which to form. The mere election of the tone row as one’s method of composition pertains to the ideal of a well-structured democracy, where each ‘voice’ or note remains equal to the next and has an equal opportunity to represent itself that did not exist in hierarchical forms in tonal music.

            What, then, after examining Mann’s appropriation of the Schönberg’s tone-row, can we say is the vision of democracy which Mann expresses through Leverkühn? For Mann, the idea of atonal music and twelve-tone composition is not merely an aesthetic form, but also a transcendent principle that extends to all human labor: art, thought, religion, and politics. Moreover, the spirit behind atonal and twelve-tone music calls into question the hierarchies within and between each of these divergent disciplines. In Doktor Faustus, Leverkühn and Zeitblom often discuss the arts and academic disciplines in terms of rank, with Zeitblom always posing the question, ‘What is the highest discipline and which disciplines are subordinate thereto?’ The most notable occasion of Zeitblom’s implication of hierarchy is his attempt to reconcile Adrian’s unmistakable gift as a composer and his choice to study Theology at the university: “Certainly, in relation to theology and the service of God, music—of course like all the arts, and also the secular sciences, but music in particular—took on an ancillary, auxiliary character” (82).

Conversely, Adrian’s self-education in music predisposes him towards atonal composition because, with his earliest music experiments, Leverkühn is able to experience an egalitarian relationship between notes before being formally introduced to the aristocratically ordered scales and progressions which define tonal music. Zeitblom recounts one of Adrian’s earliest atonal exhibitions:

And he played a chord: all black keys, F sharp, A sharp, C sharp, added and E, and so unmasked the chord, which had looked like F-sharp major, as belonging to B major, as its dominant. “Such a chord,” he said, “has itself to tonality. Everything is relation, and the relation forms a circle.” The A, which forcing the resolution into G Sharp, leads over from the B major to E major, led him on, and so via the keys of A, D, and G he came to C major and to the flat keys, as he demonstrated to me that on each one of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale one could build a fresh major or minor scale. (46)


Rather than seeing a note as belonging to a scale and its possible progressions, most notably the predetermined end of the perfect cadence, Leverkühn sees each note as possessing unlimited potentiality. G played in the context of the C major scale is no longer obligated to proceed to A or to the C, the scale’s tonic, but may proceed to B-flat, altering the its context to the G-minor pentatonic scale or could even progress out of the context of any scale included in the tradition of tonal music. In an installment of Illustrated London News, G. K. Chesterton presents an interesting interpretation of what we mean by ‘aesthetics’:

The aesthete of ordinary tradition aims at harmony rather than beauty; beauty is a fact, and harmony only a relation between facts. If his hair does not match the mauve sunset against which he is standing, he hurriedly dyes his hair to another shade of mauve. If his wife does not go with the wallpaper, he gets a curtain or a divorce. (Complete Works, 447)


If we accept Chesterton’s idea that harmony, rather than beauty, should be the measure of aesthetic quality, how do judge Adrian’s atonal compositions which do away with traditional harmony in favor positing dissonant intervals and finding creative ways of resolving them? Though Chesterton’s aphoristic musing on the nature of the aesthete divorcing his wife for the purposes of maintaining harmony appears humorous, this preference for exclusion over dissonance resembles the way in which totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany, sought to remove unwanted individuals from their respective polities so as to conserve their harmonic vision of national identity. Leverkühn’s twelve-tone style, however, runs counter to this idea of harmony as the basis for aesthetic evaluation—his compositions are anti-aesthetic. Instead of eliminating discord, he incorporates it into his music in an organized manner. Zetiblom identifies the creation and resolution of dissonance as Leverkühn’s favorite pastime:

…he amused himself by writing very sharp dissonances and finding all possible resolutions for them, which, however, just because the chord contained so many discordant notes, had nothing to do with each other, so that that acid chord, like a magic formula, created relations between the remotest chords and keys. (73)


We should not only read this passage as an example of Adrian’s affinity for experimenting with music outside the strictures of the tonal tradition, but as early evidence for the young composer’s aptitude for democratic legislation, as well. For what is the American vision of democracy if not the creation of heretofore-unthinkable relationships between “discordant notes” having “nothing to do with each other” (73)? Thus it is clear that Mann conceives of American democracy as unrelated parts woven into an enduring whole and the American aesthetic as the visionary resolution of free but dissonant notes in a way that is pleasing but not tyrannically harmonic. In this way, we should not read Leverkühn’s atonal period and his subsequent ordering of his atonal insights into the tone row as corresponding to democracy and its decay into tyranny. We should rather interpret the atonal revolution as the discovery of the potentiality in every human being despite the value the political tradition has afforded his heredity and the necessary, legislative measures taken to preserve the rights of all human beings to represent themselves without recourse to traditional hierarchies.

            Mann’s 1938 lecture series calling Americans to react against the growing threat of fascism, published by Alfred Knopf under the title The Coming Victory of Democracy, corroborates the argument that Leverkühn’s aesthetic of controlled atonality constitutes Mann’s vision of American democracy, from which he believes “Europe has much to learn…as to the nature of democracy (8). Mann approaches explanation of democracy in a stylistically democratic way, introducing the divergent ideas of “truth,” “freedom,” and “justice” (16). Realizing that one name cannot accurately delineate the idea of democracy, Mann concedes that, of the three, it “is impossible to decide which one should take precedence…for each one expresses the idea in its totality, and one stands for the others” (16). Compare Mann’s exposition of democracy from The Coming Victory to Adrian’s earliest pronouncement on the possibilities of polyphony in atonal music:

The degree of dissonance is the measure of its polyphonic value. The more discordant a chord is, the more notes it contains contrasting and conflicting with each other, the more polyphonic it is, and the more markedly every single note bears the stamp of the part already in the simultaneous sound-combination. (74)


Both Mann’s and Adrian’s conception of democracy depends upon the idea that dissonance creates polyphonic value. Mann shirks any idea of democracy that is founded upon a single virtue, such as justice, which excludes other necessary virtues like truth or freedom. For Mann, the efficacy of democracy hangs on the equal representation of these seemingly disparate virtues, as well as the symbiotic relationship between such virtues which allows each aspect of democracy to conflict with and, through this conflict, to craft an interval that allows each to “bear the stamp of the part already in the simultaneous sound-combination” (74).

It is in these orations that Mann most lucidly defines what he means by ‘democracy’:

…I wish to give the word “democracy” a very broad meaning, a much broader one than the merely political sense of the word would suggest; for I am connecting it with the highest human attributes, with the idea and the absolute; I am relating it to the inalienable dignity of mankind, which no force, however humiliating, can destroy. (17)


Mann’s deliberate extension of ‘democracy’ from the “merely political sense” to the “highest human attributes” countermands the hierarchies which the European tradition, incarnate in Zeitblom, imposes upon the myriad disciplines to which men apply themselves (17). On the contrary, we should understand The Coming Victory as a prefiguration of the politicized relationship between Leverkühn and Zeitblom. Their friendship extends beyond themselves, implicating the composer and the philologist in a dialogue between the European political model, whose alleged democracies still bore the scar of aristocracy, and the free-spiritedness that unites the merely political with all other aspects of human life. Mann’s war against totalitarianism caused him to revise his previously apolitical stance in favor of a holistic approach to democracy. In light of the crimes which European fascism had already committed against humanity, he came to regret the apathy he felt towards politics in his youth: “…in my younger years I shared that dangerous German habit of thought which regards life and intellect, art and politics as totally separate worlds” (65). Mann’s turn to political life was his attempt to narrow the gap between his art and concern for the natural rights of man, demonstrating that he did not simply have an opportunity to convince his readership that fascism posed a threat to the existence of democracy, but rather a responsibility to call his readers to its defense. This holistic vision of democracy, which calls for unification of divergent disciplines under the banner of humanity, seeks to break down the wall separating the intellect and political action. Mann expands upon Henri Bergson’s injunction “ ‘Act as men of thought, think as men of action’ ”:

Plato’s insistence that philosophers should rule the state would create a dangerous Utopia if it merely implied that the ruler should be the philosopher. The philosopher must also be a ruler—for that, primarily, creates the relationship of mind and life which we call democratic. (28-29)


Mann diagnoses Europe’s inability to maintain a stable democratic government as polarization, not between right and left, but between the inactive idea and the unexamined action. His solution is the dissolution of these artificial barriers in favor of a society which, as a whole, works towards the protection and preservation of the democratic virtues of justice, truth, and freedom. Mann’s decision to use Doktor Faustus in order to play out democracy’s struggle to stay afloat was, to him, not a political concession made at the expense of his aesthetic goals, but his recognition of the prerequisite for any autonomous act of artistic creation:

…this assertion only requires real value as definition of democracy if the concept of intellectual life is not understood as one-sided, isolated, abstract, superior to life and remote from it, but is characterized as closely related to life, as directed toward life and action… (27)


All attempts at free artistic expression have a prior responsibility to protect the artistic freedom and dignity before any other aesthetic. Therefore, the aesthetic character of Doktor Faustus is not corrupted by Mann’s political worldview—his belief in an all-pervading democracy grants him the privilege to write Doktor Faustus in the first place.

Doktor Faustus and American Thought

            Though it is quite clear that Mann had a deep faith in democracy in all facets of human life, what can we say is specifically American about his vision of democracy and how does it influence the aesthetic of Doktor Faustus? The Coming Victory is a problematic text because Mann intended it for public consumption. It is quite easy to write off The Coming Victory as Mann’s outward agreement with the uniquely American brand of democracy so that his auditors might provide financial or martial support in the war to depose Nazism as the ruling party of Mann’s native Germany, a goal, if interpreted as merely a love of his own, that stands in complete contradiction to love for democracy. In order to corroborate that Mann’s avowed faith in democracy is in earnest and that his idea of democracy had been deeply influenced by the uniquely American artistic and intellectual traditions, we must look to Leverkühn’s maturation from a natural, but uninformed affinity for free, atonal music to his implementation of the twelve-tone method, for what is uniquely American has less to do with the Revolution than what measures were taken to protect the liberties belonging to American citizens after the Revolutionary War which were denied to them under colonial rule.

In order to understand Thomas Mann as an author in dialogue with the American political tradition, I find it necessary to first put forward a few texts that exemplify American democratic thought. This vein of American letters should be understood as the preservation and reworking of the ideologies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution; the former understood as the valuation of the individual and his rightful freedom, and the latter as the political organization of constituent individuals into a whole and the necessary protection of this whole through the system of checks and balances, as well as the guaranteed potential for amendment. The poet of the Declaration is Ralph Waldo Emerson, of whose emphasis on self-reliance Mann was undoubtedly aware, for, being the great reader of Friedrich Nietzsche that he was, he would have come across Emerson’s individualism while reading Twilight of the Idols. The poets of the Constitution are Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln, whose commitment to equality and realization of the historical exigency for adaptation in light of the Civil War, provided Mann with the model of the poet-legislator. Mann’s inclusion of both Whitman and Lincoln into The Coming Victory, as well as his visible agreement with these Americans notions of totality and equity in this speech, demonstrate that he was familiar with the Whitman’s and Lincoln’s writings. Leverkühn, then, is the marriage of American individualism with the adaptive and egalitarian aesthete-statesmen.

We should note that Wendell Kretschmar, who first instructs Adrian in music, is a German-American “born in the state of Pennsylvania,” brought up under the influence of the Seventh-Day Baptist or Ephrata community, a real religious sect whose progenitor, the German immigrant Conrad Beissel, Mann discusses at great length in Doktor Faustus (49). Beissel’s compositional style, which Kretschmar relates to Adrian, rejected “the chorales, which had come over from Europe,” by virtue of the fact that the structure of tonal music “seemed to him much too forced, complicated, and artificial to serve for his flock” (65). Instead, Beissel devised a new compositional method involving a simpler system of master and slave notes. He “decided to regard the common chord as the melodic center of any given key, he called ‘masters’ the noted belonging to this chord, and the rest of the scale ‘servants’ ” (65). Though Beissel’s technique retains tonal music’s discourse of dominance and servitude, the Ephrata chorales are often interpreted as the antecedent of twentieth-century atonal music and an early example of serialism, a compositional category under which Schönberg’s tone row falls. Mann’s inclusion of Beissel as part of Adrian’s musical education, aside from Kretschmar’s anecdote serving as a catalyst for his later compositions, is also significant if we juxtapose the events of Beissel’s life and work with the advent of the American Revolution. Beissel was born in 1691 in Baden, Germany, emigrated to Boston in 1720, and finally settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1768 (GAMEO). In his lifetime, Beissel thus experienced the Molasses Act, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Sugar Act, the Currency Act, the Quartering Acts, the Stamp Act of 1765, the Declaratory Act, and the Townshend Acts, all of which have been shown to have directly contributed to colonial unrest over lack of representation and encroachment upon individual liberties. Beissel’s master-slave method is to Adrian’s free atonal music and later implementation of the tone row what colonial discourse surrounding ‘No taxation without representation’ was to the American Revolution and the subsequent ratification of the Constitution. While casting aside the strictures of tonal music, Beissel’s master/slave distinction resembles tonal music’s preference for the dominant in the diatonic scale; ‘no taxation without representation’, while intended as a protest, was originally a cry for reform within the confines of the British Constitution. Beissel’s master-slave method is politically relevant in that, like Schönberg’s tone row, the parameters of this serial method allow for the possibility of an infinite number of individual compositions. That “there was no longer a single Seventh-Day Baptist, whether male or female, who, thus assisted, had not imitated the master and composed music,” is not only a reference to Schönberg’s twelve-tone style, which Alex Ross attests was employed by émigré and Nazi composers alike in Schönberg’s own lifetime, but is also an historic fact (DF 65; The Rest is Noise). Through the use of the master-slave method of composition, Beissel alone was able to compose “over 1,000 hymns, of which 441 were printed,” and the entire Ephrata community composed even more (GAMEO).

It is not surprising that Mann, a man who lived through the demise of the Prussian Empire, the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and the rise of National Socialism, expresses a fascination with infinitely-renewable musical systems in Doktor Faustus. If we accept the idea that Mann’s reworking of the Declaration of Independence in Deutsche Hörer! reveals his attempt to Americanize German politics, and that he would have also read the US Constitution in preparation for his citizenship examination in 1944, it suggests that Doktor Faustus could be interpreted as an allegory of a infinitely-renewable constitutional democracy. The Founding Fathers shared Mann’s concern over establishing a democratic regime whose constitution was strong enough to withstand significant changes in societal values without destroying the government or hindering its ability to ensure the appropriate liberties to its citizens. In The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton argues that the overall reason for ratifying the Constitution should be “the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world” (27). Adrian’s ‘invention’ of the tone row, then, takes on an even greater meaning if we consider Doktor Faustus, not as simply a narrative of Germany’s syphilitic decay and death under Hitler, but as a manifestation of Mann’s outward hope for a new German democracy whose constitution could prove to be equally as renewable as the tone row. As Zeitblom narrates in the Epilogue, “the monstrous national perversion which then held the Continent…has celebrated its orgies down to the bitter end…now, I say, it might be possible to think of the publication of my labour of love” (504). Like Zeitblom with his manuscript, Mann did not complete Doktor Faustus until 1947, leaving over a year’s time between Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945, and the novel’s publication. Thus any political design we might attach to Adrian’s tone row must account for Mann’s newfound American perspective on the refounding of Germany as a sovereign, democratic nation, whose construction could perpetuate itself into the future without fear of another “national perversion” such as Nazism (504).

What artistic limits can we say ensure the perpetuity of the tone row, and how are these limits similar to those of the US Constitution? James Madison’s objective in drafting the Constitution can be summed up in his political maxim, “you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself”(Federalist, 319). Madison’s pronouncement on the transition of the authority from the governing to the governed resembles the way Schoolman in which describes the tone row. If the composer implements the parameters of the tone row, eventually the parameters will suffice as a means of governance and the tone row will perpetuate itself without any need for a specific composer, ensuring a healthy balance between innovation and conservation. That Schönberg did not conceive of the tone row as so democratic is well documented. Ross tells us that Schönberg “had a hard time adjusting to the concept of ‘We the people,’ and in his 1938 essay ‘Four-Point Program for Jewry’ he declared that democracy would be unsuitable for a mass Jewish movement” (The Rest, 352). Ross notes that in the same essay, Schönberg goes on to describe himself as dictatorial in nature:

…in the course of running the Society for Private Musical Performance in Vienna, he said, he had become “a kind of dictator,” and on encountering internal opposition, he did something “which under other circumstances could be called illegal: I dissolved the whole society, built a new one, accepted only such members who were in perfect agreement with my artistic principles and excluded the entire opposition.” This is precisely how Hitler took power in 1933. (The Rest, 352)


Schönberg eventually sent the “Four-Point Program for Jewry” to Mann “in the hope that the novelist would arrange to have it published,” but Mann refused, describing the essay as having a “fascistic bent” and a “will to terrorism” (Ross, 352). Though Ross views Schönberg’s essay as the “seed of Doktor Faustus,” I believe he neglects the difference between Mann’s application of the tone row and Schönberg’s. In Faust as Musician, Patrick Carnegy notes that Schönberg himself said that composing with the tone row is not equally as difficult as tonal composition, “but rather ten times more difficult” (47). While Schönberg perceived the parameters of the tone row as a call to dictatorship—for only a dictator could exercise the force and intelligence needed to control the row’s harsh dissonances—it is hard to believe that Leverkühn’s The Lamentation of Doktor Faustus embodies any pretensions to tyranny, even if he believes he has sold his soul to the Devil. If Adrian is supposed to symbolize Hitler and Nazism at large, how is it that, in the end, the composer is able to show remorse, a sentiment that Hitler and other Nazis never displayed? Nothing but good intentions mark Adrian’s final request before syphilis strikes the final “blow” to his lucidity: “I beseech you hereupon, ye would hold me in kindly remembrance, also others whom perchance to invite I forgat, with friendly commendations to salute and not to misdeam anything done by me” (503). Adrian’s task in composing The Lamentation of Doktor Faustus is not a perpetual cycle of tyranny, but the momentary suspension of liberty to establish the efficacy of the tone row, allowing the work to achieve a continual dynamism long after he leaves this world. Moreover, this interpretation of the tone row as requiring an eventual passage of power from the artist to a self-multiplying, autonomous work of art shows the fallacy of Cobley’s assertions that the dominance of the tone row is in all cases analogous to totalitarianism, this approach frees Doktor Faustus from the singular interpretation of Leverkühn as Hitler’s double.

            To further draw Leverkühn away from his traditional association with Hitler, I would like to reexamine Mann’s distinction of “diabolic” and “daemonic” from Goethe’s Faust and how he employs the division in the novel. When drafting the novel in 1943, Mann doubtless intended some association between Leverkühn’s ‘discovery’ of the tone row and totalitarianism. Ronald Hayman calls attention to notes found among the original folios of Doktor Faustus, where Mann puts forth a preliminary description of Adrian’s life as an “intoxicated intensification of the self, regardless of whether the world outside can participate” (490). In the same folio, Mann freely associates Leverkühn with the psychology behind Nazism:

…Dionysiac denial of truth and justice, regression to the instincts and uncontrolled “life”, which is really death or if it is life is only the Devil’s work, the result of infection. Fascism as a deviation from the bourgeois life-style, mediated by the Devil, leading through drunkenly intensified adventures of subjectivity and inflation of the self to mental collapse and to spiritual—soon also to physical—death: the bill is presented. (491)


The great majority of criticism surrounding the politics of Doktor Faustus refers to the associations with which Mann began, but should we confine a novel finished January 29, 1947, to notes Mann wrote for himself in 1943? As I will show, the text itself reveals Leverkühn as truly Faustian, with allegiance to the daemonic rather than to the diabolic—as ultimately benevolent.

There are two scholars of the Devil whom Adrain encounters while studying Theology at Halle: Professor Ehrenfried Kumpf and Privat-docent Eberhard Schleppfuss. Though Kumpf shows himself to be “an affirmer of culture, especially of German culture,” and “a nationalist of the Luther stamp,” his character is utterly ridiculous (96). Though Mann depicts Kumpf as a fertile mind for the exoteric teachings of National Socialism, he is nevertheless a simpleton, a rather harmless individual. After Kumpf’s “fight with the Devil” at a dinner party (wielding a lone dinner roll as his weapon!), Adrian has “such a fit of laughter in the streets” (98). Leverkühn, like Kumpf’s comic Devil, thinks of his teacher with the contempt of “the mocking-bird, the make-bait, the malcontent, the sad, the bad guest” (97). It is curious, however, that Adrian adopts Kumpf’s patois, “good plain German, with nothing mealy-mouthed about it,” and later projects this humorous and daemonic variety of spoken German on the Mephistopheles-figure to which he sells his soul (96-97). Schleppfuss, on the other hand, advocates a model of the Devil which is altogether more serious, diabolic. Zeitblom writes that, “Professor Kumpf’s good out-and-out ways with the Devil were child’s play compared to the psychological actuality with which Schleppfuss invested the Destroyer, that personified falling-away from God” (100). Indeed Schleppfuss’s conception of the Devil, which he imparts to Adrian, is much more dialectical, treating good and evil as inextricably bound to one another:

…evil, the Evil One himself—was a necessary emanation and inevitable accompaniment of the Holy Existence of God, so that vice did not consist in itself but got its satisfaction from the defilement of virtue, without which it would have been rootless; in other words, it consisted in the enjoyment of freedom, the possibility of sinning, which was inherent in the act of creation itself. (100)


Kumpf’s black-and-white postulation of good and evil separates the two moral categories with a broad line; Schleppfuss’s idea demonstrates a complex, dynamic understanding of sin and virtue. Following Schleppfuss’s thesis, the freedom which the interaction of God and Devil reveals in the world is wholly ambivalent. We are comforted by the prospect of liberty, yet it is a precarious liberty which could turn to diabolic action. Though it would be easy to say that Adrian makes a pact with either Kumpf’s daemonic Devil or Schleppfuss’s diabolic Devil, it is clear in the text that his syphilitic vision of Mephistopheles deploys both versions simultaneously. Adrian deploys the freedom available in Schleppfuss’ dialectic between good and evil, but resists becoming truly diabolic through the ultimate benevolence of his daemonic intentions, his reluctant love for his family, his close friends, and his art.

            There exists a certain affinity between Leverkühn and the Emerson of “Self-Reliance,” in that they both claim to have a kind of allegiance to the Devil. However, Emerson’s ‘Devil’ is not what Mann would identify as diabolic—as the essence of true evil—but rather an inflammatory symbol of the rejection of tradition, the daemonic Mephistopheles who bestows knowledge and freedom to Faust. Emerson stages his pact with the Devil within the context of a conversation with a fellow Unitarian churchman:

On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested,—“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it. (Kindle)


Emerson’s account of the individual’s revolt against the confines of sacred traditions is unsettling yet not inconsistent with the chief message of the Declaration nor with Adrian’s own individuality. Unlike Schleppfuss’ conception of the dialectical relationship between good and evil, a moral coexistence which allows for the possibility of individual freedom, Emerson’s near nihilistic preference for the individual over both good and evil transcends the limits of this binary opposition. Emerson’s individual does not deny the existence of good and evil, nor their interactions, but also believes that it is his goal to go beyond these moral categories, to stand outside of such moral categories and determine his proper course of action through the examination of the universe as a whole. However, the Emersonian individual ultimately reaches a fork in the road—a fork of infinite prongs. After his transcending of the traditional moral categories of good and evil, he attains freedom, what Jefferson famously called “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (US History.org). The Emersonian individual recognizes that these three things which nature bestows upon him are not ends in themselves, but rather a set of ideas that orients us toward a sentiment of infinite potential. Although this individual is free to act as he chooses, he is nevertheless burdened by the question of how he should exercise his freedom. In this moment, the Emersonian individual must decide whether the preservation of his own individuality depends upon the preservation of others’ or upon the subjugation of others’ individuality to his will.

            Leverkühn’s aesthetic embodies the struggle of which Emerson speaks, namely the reconciliation of the ‘I’, the one individual, with the existence of all other individuals. In a conversation with Zeitblom that predates his pact with the Devil, Leverkühn hints at his secret curiosity surrounding Beissel’s master-slave compositions. Adrian’s wish to artistically unite the subjective mind of the artist with that of the objective strongly echoes Emerson’s and, later, Nietzsche’s idea of moral transcendence:

But freedom is of course another word 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… She realizes herself very soon in constraint, fulfills herself in the subordination to law, rule, coercion, system—but to fulfill herself therein does not mean that she therefore ceases to be freedom. (190)


Zeitblom hastily remarks that Adrian’s proposed method of composition would remain freedom, “as little as dictatorship born out of revolution is still freedom” (190). However, I believe Zeitblom’s response stems from a rather shortsighted view of freedom, merely “talking politics,” whereas within Leverkühn’s further commentary on the state of contemporary music—his lament over atonality’s loss of organization—we begin to see the materialization of the American individual (190). For Leverkühn, political administration becomes more than mere politics, and instead a high art form:

In art, at least, the subjective and the objective intertwine to the point of being indistinguishable, one proceeds from the other and takes the character of the other, the subjective precipitates as objective and by genius is again awaked to spontaneity, ‘dynamized,’ as we say it… (190)


Leverkühn’s marriage of the subjective and the objective reflects the core values of the Declaration and its poet, Emerson. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as well as self-reliance, are synonymous with potentiality and contingency, the sheer dynamism which Adrian seeks to express, not through giving form to the formlessness of atonal music, but rather by way of recognizing the subjectivity in the compositional forms which the atonal movement rejected as ‘objective.’ Adrian declares that, “[t]he musical conventions today destroyed were not always so objective, so objectively imposed,” they were rather “crystalizations of living experience and as such long performed an office of vital importance: the task of organization” (190). Thus, in Adrain’s mind, it is erroneous to suggest that atonality simply breaks with the tonal tradition in order to attain freedom, as if freedom had not heretofore existed in music. Atonal music, better understood, constitutes a critique of how we organize the historical evolution of music—its true goal should not be to give further credence to the belief that Baroque, Classical, or Romantic music is pure structure, but to unveil the artistic freedom, while perhaps better concealed, as having existed in music throughout the age of tonal composition. Leverkühn presents Zeitblom with this oddly metaphysical pronouncement on form: “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” (190). Although, within the context of the conversation, Leverkühn makes a concerted effort to restrict his argument to art, to say that art derives from a preexisting, all-pervading organization and that freedom is inextricably bound to a subjective understanding of form evinces quite a powerful, political significance. Leverkühn’s argument, in structure, is a mirror image of Jefferson’s line of reasoning in the Declaration, the belief in “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them [human beings]” (US History.org). Just as true atonality must accept the preexistence of freedom in tonal music, so did Jefferson acknowledge that the American Revolution was not the first time that men were free and independent upon this earth, but that freedom is and has ever been inherent in the primal organization of Nature and remained visible, even within the confines of Old World tyranny.

The realization that the individual transcends the moral categories of good and evil and the subsequent, empathetic decision to protect all individuals rather than merely ensuring one’s own individual liberty requires a democratic order between individuals to ensure the perpetuity of individual values. Leverkühn’s implementation of the tone row, which consists of an overarching system between individual notes that protects the individuality of these notes, when read politically, resembles the intentions and mechanisms behind the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution consists of the duties of the three branches of government, three branches that are not free-standing entities which have the independent power to negotiate cooperative actions between one another, rather a single entity whose parts cooperate with one another through a pre-arranged system of checks and balances. Like the tone row, the U.S. Constitution originated from the work of but a few minds, but whose self-mandated procedures for keeping each branch in check and for the amendment of these same regulations as the need arises, allows the Constitution to exist outside of the control of its drafters. It is one thing to be a dictator who possesses the authority to write a law but, through this selfsame authority, has the ability to exempt himself from this law; it is an altogether more selfless phenomenon to create a law by which the legislator himself must abide. Although Schönberg argues that the implementer of the tone row must be dictatorial, it is clear from Schönberg’s own statement concerning the overwhelming difficulty into which the composer runs once he accepts the parameters of the tone row that the composer, like the democratic legislator, is not above the law, as a dictator may be, rather within the law. The difficulty of twelve-tone composition, so to speak, is an arbitrarily assumed difficulty that could be easily circumvented by drawing recourse to the precedents of tonal music or even to atonal music’s lack of precedence, but something within the mind of the twelve-tone composer allows him to accept the handicap in trying to resolve the dissonance between each note, to not exempt himself from the laws of the tone row even though they are of his own invention. Nevertheless, the unique musical manifestation constituted by any given piece has much to do with each composer’s individual guidance, but the overall entity, the sum of all twelve-tone pieces composed by all twelve-tone composers, remains the tone row. The overall entity is the tone row and the composer’s voice is equal to that of each individual note and to the voice of other composers who write music within the parameters of the tone row. Each new piece of legislation under the Constitution is the product of a few specific men, but, because their new law conforms to the Constitution’s supreme law, we can say that this new law exists as an individual manifestation of the larger entity of the Constitution.

            In The Coming Victory of Democracy, Mann cites Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln as the paragons of American democratic virtue, which is not surprising if we consider that, because of Mann’s identity as both a citizen of the short-lived Weimar Republic and a persecuted citizen of the Nazi regime, he would have been more than fascinated with two individuals who concerned themselves with the preservation of the Union and the eradication of political institutions that effectively prevented other human beings from attaining those rights which Nature confers upon all human beings. Moreover, Leverkühn’s use of the tone row in Doktor Faustus and the transcendent political properties which Mann appends to Leverkühn’s style of composition heavily resemble Lincoln’s staunch commitment to the defend the Constitution, whether through civil war or amendment, and Whitman’s poetic deification of democracy as a transcendent being immanent in whole world. Mann’s earliest mention of Lincoln in his diaries is January 8, 1942, where he remarks that he received a book entitled Lincolns Leben in Bildern as a gift (376). What is more, it is apparent in an entry dated February 2, 1943, that he had researched Lincoln in preparation for a speech entitled “America Talks to Australia,” though no mention of Lincoln appears in this speech (532). Lincoln’s commitment to abolition, epitomized by “The Emancipation Proclamation,” as well as the three constitutional amendments that followed in the wake of his administration, is similar to the way in which Leverkühn implements the tone row in The Lamentation of Doktor Faustus. On January 1, 1963, Lincoln famously declared:

…all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of the State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States…will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons… (“The Emancipation Proclamation”)


“The Emancipation Proclamation” is the culmination of what we might call the ‘tone row’ of the U.S. Constitution in that the parameters of American democracy begins to resemble the political association between notes in the tone row by freeing the slaves from the masters through the cooperation of the executive branch and the legislative branch, who would later incorporate the individual ‘voices’ of abolition into the parameters of Constitution through the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. These amendments do not circumvent the authority of the Constitution by valuing one group of voices over another, rather they gain admittance into the formal parameters of the Constitution by proving that the tenets of abolition have always agreed with the original goals of the constitution. The Civil War, then, is analogous to a composer who uses the tone row but also attempts to reestablish the tonic-dominant structure of the major scale within the context of the tone row—no matter how hard this composer tries to reestablish harmony, he must either reject the tone row or acknowledge that remaining five notes outside of his elected tonal scale will counteract any degree of harmony he is able to produce. The composer must discard the tone row or accept that even he, powerful though he may be, is subject to the authority of the tone row. Despite Lincoln’s great personal ingenuity, he credits the ability to preserve the Union to his office, his participation in American constitutional democracy as a holistic system. “The Gettysburg Address” further emphasizes Lincoln’s premonition that, although he played a great role in the continuance of the United States’ constitutional government, that the destiny of American democracy still remained out of his control. In the “Gettysburg Address,” Lincoln declares that the soldiers who participated in the Battle of Gettysburg, “living and dead, who struggled here to have consecrated it [the battlefield], far above our own poor power to add or detract. The world will little remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” (kindle). Lincoln defines the Constitution, whose authority these soldiers fought to preserve, as a work of human hands and voices, which simultaneously contains their words and deeds, yet exists at least in par outside of the sphere of human influence.

            In “The Dust Was Once the Man,” Whitman lauds the assassinated Lincoln as the man “under whose cautious hand,/ Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,/ Was saved the Union of these States” (2-4). If Lincoln’s purpose was to preserve the Union and the values of the Constitution, Whitman aspired to deify the all-containing Constitution in Leaves of Grass under the apostrophic name “Democracy, the destin’d conqueror” (XXIII, 9). For Mann, there was no other writer who exuded the spirit of American democratic virtue than Whitman, nor does any other poetic work bear stronger resemblance to the political vision implied by Leverkühn’s tone row than Leaves of Grass. Mann’s diaries show that, of any American writer, Whitman was the one which with Mann was engaged with the longest. The first entry that mentions Whitman is dated from December 13, 1933 (267). The political ramifications of Leverkühn’s twelve tone style shares two major features with Whitman’s ‘Democracy’: the universal incorporation of all beings under one law and the resolution of the tensions between objective and subjective experiences of the world. In the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman describes his soul and the soul of ‘the other’ within a political discourse: “I believe in you my soul…the other I am must not abase itself to you,/And you must not be abased to the other” (23). At first glance, Whitman’s statement concerning the abasement of the soul to this “other” appears to be a leveling of the hierarchy between the body and the soul. However, we must consider the overarching ‘I’ who speaks in Leaves of Grass, who declares in the beginning of the poem that, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (21). Is this ‘I’ but one man, or a single entity in whom all matter and spirit exists? This transcendent ‘I’ who narrates Leaves of Grass is the mechanism by which Whitman can express the naturally non-abased essence of politics and contain every voice, no matter how dissonant. This poetic ‘I’ declares that he is “not the poet of goodness only…I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also…Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me…I stand indifferent” (37). Like the Emersonian individual, this ‘I,’ this one all-containing being, transcends the moral categories of good and evil for both play important parts in its internal order. For Whitman, the dissonance of human opinion is a false dissonance, a misunderstanding of the pervasive organization of all things. Leverkühn’s tone row not only resembles Whitman’s democratic cosmos in structure, but also in perspective. Leverkühn’s wish to unite objective and subjective experience of the world through the imposition of the tone row corresponds to this Whitmanian indifference. In this sense, Whitman’s ‘I,’ who contains everything and experiences everything objectively and subjectively, is the theoretical culmination of the Emersonian individual. He is an individual who can respect the liberty of other individuals and himself simultaneously without sacrifice because, for him, understanding himself and understanding the order of the universe are one in the same. Leverkühn’s pact with the devil and subsequent implementation of the tone row are not steps toward evil, but rather a realization of this one, transcendent order that holds all things in the universe together. His pact is the freedom one exercises with the knowledge of this over-arching, democratic law of nature, the knowledge that there is no “more heaven or hell than there is now,” only organization (22).

            As Zeitblom narrates the final days of Leverkühn’s life, he inserts a strange reference to America into his friend’s biography:

In actual fact I have sometimes pondered ways and means of sending these pages to America, in order that they may first be laid before the public in an English translation. To me it seems as though this might not run quite counter to the wishes of my departed friend. (504)


Although this passage seems at first to be Mann’s courteous nod to the country which sheltered him from the atrocities of Nazi Germany so that he could write Doktor Faustus and a humorous reference to the fact that the book would first be published in the U.S., I find Zeitblom’s statement that the first publication of Adrian’s biography in America in English translation “might not run counter” to the composer’s wishes to be altogether more meaningful. As I have demonstrated, Leverkühn’s twelve-tone style and his philosophy of political holism and the seamless merging of objective and subjective experience have much to do with the foundational texts of American democracy, as well as with Emerson’s, Lincoln’s, and Whitman’s literary continuations of the ideologies underlying these basic texts. Zeitblom’s insistence that Adrian’s biography and compositions should be given an audience in America is not merely Mann’s reference to the fact that he was grateful to the Americans for hosting an expatriate, German novelist, but rather a subtle intimation that Leverkühn’s individualist, artistic soul has some spiritual affinity with the American tradition of personal liberty and the political system which aims to preserve that liberty. The final pages of Zeitblom’s ‘manuscript’ gives the impression of soulless German nation because Adrian—the incarnate spirit of German creativity—has departed from the fatherland. But whither is this free, artistic soul departed? The scene of Leverkühn’s burial recalls the tragic death scene in Goethe’s Faust II, where Faust declares that he would like to stand “[a]uf freiem Grund mit freiem Volke” (11580). Mann’s recognition of the Americans’ hospitality suggests that Adrian would, too, prefer that he and his works to emigrate from the soulless, totalitarian atmosphere of Nazi Germany to the soils of this free land inhabited by free peoples.

            However, how do we explain Mann’s departure from the United States if he was so dedicated to the idea of American democracy? Aside from the obvious answer to this question, that he was homesick, still attached to the cultural tradition which Europe represented in his mind, a cultural tradition that could only be experienced by actually being in Europe, I want to suggest a few other reasons that are more complicated politically. The pessimistic answer is that Mann perceived a drastic change in American democracy after World War II. In Genesis of a Novel, Mann briefly describes his and his wife’s sentiments upon learning that they had become naturalized U.S. citizens: “So we were now American citizens, and I am glad to think—but had best be brief in uttering this thought—that I became one under Roosevelt, in his America” (69). For Mann, Roosevelt embodied all for which the founding fathers and Lincoln stood, a commitment to individual liberty and a democratic sense of charity towards all mankind. Yet after Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and Truman’s victories on both the European and Asian fronts, Mann noticed a growing conformism in the Americans’ attitude, especially in its institutionalized discomfort with and growing hatred of communist states, such as the USSR. Thomas and Katia grew increasingly worried about the growing anti-communist sentiment in the U.S. and, as Hayman points out, “as soon as it was announced that Dwight Eisenhower had been elected president, Katia was in favor of renewing their American passports in case he [Eisenhower] though Thomas should be expatriated because of his visit to East Germany” (Thomas Mann, 597). During his lecture tour through East Germany, Mann became more and more convinced that he would be “cited by the House Committee” as having leftist sympathies and that, if he was indeed asked to come before the committee on these charges that he would renounce his American citizenship (Hayman, 598). In 1953, a correspondent for The New York Times named Paul Hoffmann asked Mann for an opinion regarding the Senators McCarthy’s and McCarran’s institutionalized suspicion of Americans involved with communist and socialist organizations and of all aliens in general, Mann refused to give an answer. Instead, Mann replied to Hoffmann, explaining that, “the future belonged to a totalitarianism that would admit neither democracy nor freedom, and at the age of seventy-seven, he didn’t want to provoke a repetition of experiences he’d had in the thirties—expatriation and being dispossessed of his property” (Hayman, 600). In the end, it would seem that Mann had consigned himself to a reasonably happy life in neutral Switzerland and had given up role as the humanist champion of democratic virtue out of exhaustion. Nevertheless, I wish to propose a more optimistic answer that is congruent with Mann’s long and unswerving commitment to democracy and his previous satisfaction with Roosevelt’s America and the America of the Founding Fathers. Mann’s relocation to Switzerland had as much to do with his obligation to his family as it did with his aversion to conformism and McCarthyism. Both Katia and his daughter Erika suffered from depression and were anxious to move back to Europe, so much so that Erika could not even talk about the U.S. without becoming “irritable”; Mann feared that she might commit suicide if they did not leave America (Hayman, 594). Regardless, judging from Mann’s biography, he still felt committed to the Jeffersonian spirit of international democracy. Hayman writes that Mann felt “unhappy that his work was unavailable in the Soviet zone of Germany” (Thomas Mann, 594). Many critics would attribute this dismay to Mann’s occasional narcissistic tendencies, but what Hayman reveals is stunning: “when the East German press illegally brought out editions of Buddenbrooks and The Beloved Returns, Thomas had no strong feelings” (Thomas Mann, 594). Even in his last few years on Earth, Mann had not totally resigned himself to live a tranquil life in Switzerland. Though still afraid of further confrontation with what he considered un-democratic governments, Mann was determined to secure his legacy as a humanist and Jeffersonian proponent of an international democracy. Despite his return to Europe, Mann’s Doktor Faustus, as well as his political speeches, stands as a curious testament of an outsider’s thirteen-year dialogue with American democracy, in politics and in culture. The question of his citizenship aside, the Mann out of whose head the eccentric composer Adrian Leverkühn sprang, was deeply indebted, not only to the American state that sheltered him from the atrocities of National Socialism, but the American democratic tradition which nurtured and added to his art.

















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