Doktor Faustus; Doctor Faustus

Doktor Faustus; Doctor Faustus (1947) 

Doktor Faustus was written between 1943 and 1947. The novel can be interpreted as Mann’s fictional reckoning with National Socialism; however the novel does not deal with National Socialism directly. Instead it explores tendencies within German culture which may have contributed to the rise of German fascism, through the life of the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn (1885-1940). The composer Adrian Leverkühn is not a fascist himself, but a genius who becomes infected with syphilis and who collapses into paralysis in 1930, three years before Hitler came to power. Like Nietzsche – on whom he is partially modelled – Leverkühn remains paralysed for the last ten years of his life, and is looked after by his family. Nietzsche himself was cosmopolitan and very critical of nationalists and anti-Semites, but his attack on traditional morality and his promotion of irrationalism helped to lay the ideological groundwork for militant German nationalism. But Leverkühn is also based on Thomas Mann himself, and the novel contains many autobiographical allusions - for example, Leverkühn was the name of the executor of Mann’s father’s will. Adrian Leverkühn’s twelve-tone system of composition was developed by the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Thomas Mann published his own account of the creation of this novel (see reading list below). 

The novel is subtitled Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn erzählt von einem Freunde; The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as told by a Friend. The novel is narrated by Adrian Leverkühn’s friend Serenus Zeitblom. Zeitblom is a Catholic and a humanist pedagogue who narrates the events in the years between 1943 and 1945, from the perspective of Germany’s defeat in World War Two. If Leverkühn bears a distant resemblance to Goethe’s Faust, then Zeitblom has much in common with the pedantic character of Wagner in Goethe’s play. Zeitblom claims to be intellectually opposed to Nazism but he is ineffectual, fatalistic, and even partially complicit in the phenomenon he claims to oppose: Martin Swales (see reading list below) has shown that Zeitblom prefers totalizing explanations, and Karin L. Crawford (see reading list below) suggests that Zeitblom demonizes his friend Leverkühn because he is suffering from unrequited love.

The initial idea for the novel dates back to a note Mann wrote in 1905 about an artist who becomes infected with syphilis as the result of a pact with the devil. The disease brings artistic inspiration but it ultimately leads to paralysis. In the completed novel, Adrian Leverkühn sleeps with a prostitute (Hetaera) whom he calls ‘Esmeralda’. Leverkühn is convinced that the development of music has reached an impasse, because musical forms which were once innovative now seem clichéd. According to Leverkühn, modern music has become aware of itself as an artificial, conventional construct. As a result, the modern artist seems doomed to parody existing forms of production. This applies just as much to modernist literature after Nietzsche’s critique of language as it does to music. Through Leverkühn’s aesthetic discussions the novel delivers a subversive, self-reflective critique of its own mimetic style. Leverkühn seeks a ‘breakthrough’ (Durchbruch) in music beyond convention to a new form of collective expression, but this sounds uncomfortably like the ‘breakthrough’ to world power which Hitler sought. The rigid severity of the twelve-tone system which Leverkühn develops can be seen as an analogy for fascist political organisation.      

For the sections on musical theory, Mann was advised by the German Jewish philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. In Dialektik der Aufklärung; The Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-written with Max Horkheimer (1947), Adorno argues that the instrumentalisation of reason, which treats human beings as objects, contributed to the development of fascism. Doktor Faustus explores the intellectual origins of fascism by going all the way back to humanism and the Protestant Reformation, but its ambivalent style invites divergent attitudes to intellectual history. The novel has been interpreted differently by critics depending on their attitudes to humanism and the Enlightenment. T. J. Reed (see reading list below) interprets Doktor Faustus from a humanist perspective, arguing that it is Leverkühn’s Dionysian tendencies which prove his undoing. Thomas Mann himself implicitly confirms this intepretation of the novel in his speech 'Germany and the Germans' ['Deutschland und die Deutschen'], given in Washington on 29 May 1945, in which he rejects the idea that there was a 'good' Germany and a 'bad' Germany, arguing instead that there was one Germany which turned to the bad. However, Stephen D. Dowden (see reading list below) aligns himself closer to Adorno, reading Doktor Faustus (against the grain of Mann's own political speeches) as a critique of humanism. Dowden regards humanism as too anthropocentric: it regards man as the measure of all things and nature as an object, given for the human subject to dominate. According to Dowden, Leverkühn’s final masterpiece ‘Dr Fausti Weheklag’; ‘Lamentation of Dr. Faustus’ succeeds because the twelve-tone system removes human subjectivity from the centre of things and reintegrates humanity into nature, through the form of a lament which can be seen as a dystopian form of prayer. Doktor Faustus subtly critiques both German fascism and liberal humanism through the allegory of art. Not only did liberal humanism fail to provide effective resistance to fascism, but it became implicated in fascism in spite of itself. By exploring the interplay between these cultural values, the novel sets up a space for reflection on German history and on the fate of modern Western culture.


Further Reading


David J. T. Ball, Thomas Mann’s recantation of ‘Faust’: ‘Doktor Faustus’ in the context of Mann’s relationship to Goethe (Stuttgart: Heinz, 1986)

Michael Beddow, Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Tobias Boes, Formative Fictions: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Bildungsroman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), pp. 155-181

Cecily Cai, ‘Doktor Faustus and Its Variations on Lateness’, Arcadia: Internationale Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft 57:2 (2022), 282-300 

Evelyn Cobley, ‘Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Fascist Politics: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Theodor W. Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music’, New German Critique 86 (2002), 43-70

Karin L. Crawford, 'Exorcizing the Devil from Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus', German Quarterly 76 (2003), 168-82

Stephen D. Dowden, Sympathy for the Abyss: A Study in the Novel of German Modernism: Kafka, Broch, Musil, and Thomas Mann (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1986), Chapter 5 on Doktor Faustus, pp. 135-75

Osman Durrani, ‘The Tearful Teacher: The Role of Serenus Zeitblom in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus’, Modern Language Review 80:3 (1985), 652-58

Osman Durrani, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Klaus Mann’s Input into Doktor Faustus’, Oxford German Studies 34:2 (2005), 173-79

Peter Eagles, ‘The “Dunkelmänner” of Doktor Faustus: Humanists versus Theologians’, German Life and Letters 75:1 (2022), 98-115

Paul Eisenstein, ‘Leverkühn as Witness: The Holocaust in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus’, The German Quarterly 70:4 (1997), 325-46

Rüdiger Görner, ‘Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus: Thomas Mann’s Narrated Poetics’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 70 (2001), 46-55

Sean Ireton, ‘Between Autobiography and Fiction: Thomas Mann’s Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus: Roman eines Romans’, Seminar 44:2 (2008), 210-25

Fredric Jameson, ‘Allegory and History: On Rereading Doktor Faustus’, in F. Jameson, The Modernist Papers (New York and London: Verso, 2007), pp. 113-33

Todd Kontje, ‘Saul Fitelberg’s Failed Seduction: Worldliness in Doktor Faustus’, German Life and Letters 75:1 (2022), 78-97

Herbert Lehnert and Peter C. Pfeiffer (eds.), Thomas Mann’s ‘Doctor Faustus’: A Novel at the Margins of Modernism (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1991)

Georg Lukács, ‘The Tragedy of Modern Art’, in Lukács, Essays on Thomas Mann, trans. by Stanley Mitchell (London: Merlin, 1964), pp. 47-97

Thomas Mann, The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Dr. Faustus, trans. by Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Knopf, 1961)

Ritchie Robertson, ‘Accounting for History: Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus’, in The German Novel in the Twentieth Century, ed. by David Midgley (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), pp. 128-48

Susan von Rohr Scaff, ‘The Duplicity of the Devil’s Pact: Intimations of Redemption in Mann’s Doktor Faustus’, Monatshefte 87:2 (1995), 151-69 

Judith Ryan, The Uncompleted Past: Postwar German Novels and the Third Reich (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983)

Ernest Schonfield, ‘Mann Re-Joyces: The Dissemination of Myth in Ulysses and Joseph, Finnegans Wake and Doctor Faustus’, Comparative Critical Studies 3:3 (2006), 269-90

J. P. Stern, History and Allegory in Thomas Mann’s ‘Doktor Faustus’ (London: H. K. Lewis, 1975)

Martin Swales, ‘The Over-Representations of History: Reflections on Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus’, in Representing the German Nation: History and Identity in Twentieth-century Germany, ed. by Mary Fulbrook and Martin Swales (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 77-90

Hans Rudolf Vaget, ‘Amazing Grace: Thomas Mann, Adorno, and the Faust Myth’, in Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand (eds.), Our Faust? Roots and Ramifications of a Modern German Myth (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), pp. 168-89

John Walker, ‘Goethe’s Faust, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and the Site of Literature’, in The Present Word: Culture, Society and the Site of Literature. Essays in Honour of Nicholas Boyle, ed. by John Walker (London: Legenda, 2013), pp. 109-24

Erica Wickerson, ‘Demonizing Gretchen through Gossip in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 50:2 (2014), 212-26


Further Reading in German

Eva Bauer Lucca, ‘„Kommt alte Lieb’ und Freundschaft mit herauf”. Goethe’s Spuren in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus’ (05.03.2005)

Malte Herwig, Bildungsbürger auf Abwegen: Naturwissenschaften im Werk Thomas Manns (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2004)

Hans Wisskirchen, Zeitgeschichte im Roman. Zu Thomas Manns ‘Zauberberg’ und ‘Doktor Faustus’ (Bern: Francke, 1986)