Sixty Years of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus*

Ulrich Grothus

Thomas Mann completed the manuscript of Doktor Faustus on January 29, 1947. Later that year, the novel was published in Sweden, in the original German. The first English translation[1] was in print only a couple of months later, in early 1948. Ever since, it may possibly have been the novel by Mann that was the most admired by many, and the most resented by some.

The writer of these lines is one of its admirers. I first read it in 1972, as a student, and returned to it in 1990, between the fall of the Berlin wall and the unification of Germany, when some of us feared that the dark drifts in German history, that Thomas Mann so vividly described, might prevail again. I am writing not as an expert in literary criticism or musicology nor in my professional capacity as an academic administrator, but as a layman interested in literature and music who wants to share some of his enthusiasm about this novel and the music it relates to.

As the subtitle says, Doktor Faustus is The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend. Leverkühn is born in 1885 in central Germany. He studies the piano and some composition as a boy but first earns a degree in theology before returning to his German-American music teacher Wendell Kretzschmar to study composition in Leipzig. The very day Leverkühn arrives in Leipzig he is led to a brothel by a tour guide and first meets a prostitute whom he later revisits. She will then infect him with syphilis. The infection is interpreted as a stimulant to artistic creativity - and as a silent pact with the devil who makes his appearance exactly half-way through the novel, probably only in Lever­kühn’s fantasy. The primary infection is not adequately treated and 24 years later, in 1930, will lead to Leverkühn’s mental breakdown and paralysis, from which he will not recover until his death ten years later. The paralytic shock happens when Leverkühn has invited his friends from Munich to the nearby village where he lives, apparently for a presentation of his last composition The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus[2], but in fact to confess his nefarious trade of love and warmth for artistic creativity.

This in itself is hardly a plot that would keep anybody breathless for more than 500 pages. But this is not only, and not mainly, the story of a syphilitic composer. It is also, and above all, one of the only great German novels describing an entire era from Imperial Germany to the Nazi regime.

There are two narrative times in the novel, one referring to Leverkühn’s life, and the other being that of the writing of his biography by Lever­kühn’s life-long friend, Serenus Zeitblom. Leverkühn’s conscious life ends in 1930 when the Nazis had just won the first of several electoral successes that would, alongside the support of most of the country’s economic, military and political elites, eventually carry them to power. Zeitblom starts writing, like Thomas Mann, on May 23, 1943. Zeitblom is a teacher of Latin and Greek, who dedicates much of his life to his admired friend. The quintessential German humanist, Zeitblom is resolutely non-Nazi and resigns from the school system when the Nazis come to power. I would hesitate to call him anti-Nazi because he never actively resists the regime, although he clearly sympathizes with those who do, like the White Rose Group in Munich.

The novel is sprinkled with Zeitblom’s observations on the final stage of the Second World War and on the deep roots of barbarism and irrationality that would lead to the worst crimes in human history and to the destruction of half of Europe, including Germany itself.

Zeitblom reflects Mann’s own conviction that the “good” in German society and intellectual history could not easily be separated from the “bad” and dark, in contrast to some of Mann’s fellow refugees  and many German intellectuals who had stayed in the country and discovered their “inner emigration” before or, more frequently, after 1945.

Zeitblom writes: “Our ‘thousand-year’ history, refuted, reduced ad absurdum, weighed in the balance and found unblest, turns out to be leading nowhere, or rather into despair, an unexampled bankruptcy, a descent to hell[3] lighted by the dance of roaring flames. ... The way that led to this sinful issue … was everywhere wrong and fatal, at every single one of its turns.”[4] Or, a bit later: “But a patriotism which would assert that a blood state like this was so forced, so foreign to our national character that it could not take root among us: such a patriotism would seem to me more high-minded than realistic. For was this government, in word and deed, anything but the distorted, vulgarized, besmirched symbol of a state of mind, a notion of world affairs which we must recognize as both genuine and characteristic?”[5]

This may be one reason why Thomas Mann did not give Leverkühn the traits of musicians like Richard Strauss[6] or Hans Pfitzner, who were deeply involved with the Nazi regime and publicly volunteered in 1933 to force Mann into exile[7]. Leverkühn’s clinical history is similar to Nietzsche’s, who was much admired both by many Nazis and some of their enemies, including Mann. But as a composer, Leverkühn is modeled in many respects after Arnold Schönberg, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century, a Jew, Mann’s friend and fellow artist in exile in Los Angeles and a person of immaculate vanguard credentials.

Leverkühn’s system of composition, as he explains it to Zeitblom in chapter XXII of the novel, is in fact Schönberg’s technique of “composition with twelve tones related only to one-another”. Schönberg, whose sense of humor was not quite up to his musical genius, was furious to be portrayed as suffering from syphilis and being in a pact with the devil (and even feared that future generations might think Mann, rather than he, had invented the system).

Schönberg had once said that his system would “ensure the hegemony of German music for the next hundred years”. Even he was not free from the temptation to style Germany as the unique music nation, different from and superior to any other.


The cult of the Kulturnation is a first central topic of Mann’s novel. The uniqueness of Germany had also been celebrated by the Jugendbewegung in early 20th century. Mann describes at some length discussions between Leverkühn, Zeitblom and their fellow students during a hiking tour. The cult of the nation reached a first paroxysm at the beginning of the First World War, when Zeitblom expresses his nationalism in terms similar to Mann himself in his Observations of a Nonpolitical Man of 1918: “What the break-through to world power, to which fate summons us, means at bottom, is the break-through to the world – out of an isolation of which we are painfully conscious, and which no vigorous reticulation into world economy has been able to break down since the founding of the Reich.” Leverkühn wryly comments: “At present ... the crude event will just make our shut-in-ness and shut-off-ness more complete however far your military swarm into Europe.”[8]

Only later, in the 1920s, did Thomas Mann become the public intellectual who broke with a tradition of disdain for democratic process and rational discourse and spoke out for democracy both in Germany and from his American exile.


The proximity of aestheticism and barbarism, of beauty and crime, is a second central element in Mann’s description of German culture which touches the fundamental role of art in society. Walter Benjamin has spoken of the fascist aestheticization of politics. Zeitblom says about one of Leverkühns major works, the Apocalypsis con figuris, that it had “a peculiar kinship with, was in spirit a parallel to, the things I had heard at Kridwiss’s table-round”, an inter-war circle in Munich that Mann describes flatly as “arch-fascist”. A few pages later, Zeitblom worries about “an aestheticism which my friend’s saying: ‘the antithesis of bourgeois culture is not barbarism, but community[9],’ abandoned to the most tormenting doubts. … Aestheticism and barbarism are (near) to each other: aestheticism as the herald of barbarism.”[10]


Third, and perhaps foremost: This is a novel about music. Mann’s main musical advisor in writing the novel was Theodor Adorno, one of the founders of critical theory, who had studied composition with Alban Berg, one of Schönberg’s first followers. Adorno saw atonal, dissonant, and polyphonic music as the only progressive way for the further development of musical material and as the adequate musical expression of the contradictions of advanced capitalist societies. Adorno was less convinced of the constraints that the twelve tone system imposes on the creative process, in that it prescribes literally every tone that may be used at a given place in the composition.

Thomas Mann read the manuscript of Adorno’s Philosophy of the New Music while he wrote Doctor Faustus, and he asked Adorno to read the entire manuscript and double-check if the descriptions of Leverkühn’s fictitious works were musically plausible. Mann and Adorno have accomplished that to a remarkable extent: This is a novel that makes you believe to hear music that actually has never been composed.

Strangely enough, Adorno appears in Leverkühn’s conversation with the devil when Satan’s appearance changes from “an ugly customer, a bully, a criminal[11], a rough” to a “theoretician and critic, who himself composes, so far as thinking allows him”.[12] And then the devil starts reasoning about music in terms that could have been copied verbatim from the Philosophy of the New Music”.

Thomas Mann’s personal musical taste was much less progressive than Adorno’s. In ‘Doctor Faustus’: The Genesis of the Novel, Mann describes the triad harmony of Wagner’s Ring as his musical homeland. Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer and a most despicable anti-Semite, was, as Hanns Eisler has put it, “a great composer, unfortunately”. Leverkühn claims at one point “that the whole development of music in Germany strove towards the word-tone-drama of Wagner and therein found its goal. ‘One goal’’, says Zeitblom, “referring to Brahms”, and Leverkühn agrees. “Brahms the Progressive”, was the title of Schönberg’s last public appearance in Germany in a radio talk before he fled the Nazis.

Early in the novel, when Leverkühn and Zeitblom are high school students, Kretzschmar gives a lecture on Beethoven’s last piano sonata op. 111, and why it has only two movements instead of the usual three or four. Kretzschmar comments the sonata as he plays it. Kretzschmar stresses the “polyphonic objectivity” of Beethoven’s late music, an objectivity that tends even to the conventional rather than having it melted into limitless subjectivity.

He then explains the motif of the 2nd movement, the famous arietta. In a gentle gesture to Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno Kretzschmar vocalizes the theme with: lover’s pain, Wiesengrund. When the variations have reached the incredible climax that Stravinsky called the “Boogie Woogie Variation”, Kretzschmar comments a passage of long thrills and desolate loneliness: “’These flourishes and cadenzas! Do you hear the conventions that are left in? Here – the language – is no longer – purified of the flourishes – but the flourishes – of the appearance – of their subjective – domination – the appearance – of art is thrown off – at last …”[13]

At the very end of the movement the motif is expanded to a more consoling version like “Now forget the pain” or “Grüner Wiesengrund”. A returning after this parting, explains Kretzschmar, a third movement, would have been impossible. The sonata had come to an end.

Just a few days before his breakdown, after the cruel death of his beloved nephew, Leverkühn opposes his own last work to Beethoven, the radical composer of the enlightenment in the revolutionary phase of bourgeois society: “What human beings have fought for and stormed citadels, what the ecstatics exultantly announced – that is not to be. It will be taken back. I will take it back. … the Ninth Symphony.”[14] The return of musical development set free by Beethoven to a music where every single note is “thematic” and in that sense unfree, may stand for the dialectic of the enlightenment.


When I read the novel again last summer, I was thinking: What has remained of the Germany that Mann described in so desperate and still so loving terms, and what has changed? Germany is very different today, it would seem to me. Of course, the unparalleled crimes committed by Germans under the Nazi regime, are, and will forever be, central to the German collective memory. Any sign of renascent racism there is taken more seriously, at home and around the world, than in most other countries, and rightly so.

Still, the strain of irrationalism that Mann describes and that was so fraught with disaster has all but vanished in contemporary German culture. It would even seem that the national obsession with philosophy has ceased altogether. In the former “land of poets and thinkers”, philosophy has become the specialty of a small profession. 95 per cent of German university graduates of my, or the younger, generation, have probably never read a philosophical book, and if so, it was mostly Foucault, Habermas or Marx. Most books by Martin Heidegger, Germany’s most influential and most compromised philosopher in the 20th century, are not even available in paperback, for lack of popular demand. The love and high esteem of music, however, seems to have survived. Nearly half of the world’s opera houses, I am told, are in Germany – and mainly play Italian opera.

There are good reasons to believe that, finally, democracy in Germany has been the success that Thomas Mann, in Zeitblom’s words, had already hoped for during the Weimar Republic. “It was an attempt, a not utterly and entirely hopeless attempt (the second since the failure of Bismarck and his unification performance) to normalize Germany in the sense of Europeanizing or “democratizing’ it, of making it part of the social life of peoples.”[15]


[1] Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus (translation H.T. Lowe-Porter). Everyman’s Library (Alfred A. Knopf). New York, Toronto 1992

[2] the only explicit reference to the legend that had already inspired Marlowe and Goethe (and will some years later inspire Hanns Eisler’s libretto that he never set to music because of the violent opposition of the Stalinist cultural bureaucracy)

[3] descensus Averno in the Lowe-Porter English translation, Höllenfahrt in the German original

[4] idem, p. 462

[5] idem, p. 494

[6] though the fatal meeting with the prostitute Esmeralda takes place on the occasion, or under the pretext, of Leverkühn visiting a performance of Strauss’s Salome conducted by the composer

[7] with the infamous „protest of the Richard Wagner City Munich” in April 1933, initiated by Pfitzner and the conductor Hans Knappersbusch

[8] idem, p. 312 seq.

[9] “collectivism“ in the English translation, „Gemeinschaft“ in the German original

[10] idem, p. 380

[11] both the translation and the German original use the Austrian dialect expression ”strizzi”

[12] idem, p. 242

[13] idem, p. 52 sq.

[14] idem, p. 489

[15] idem, p 396.


* This paper is based on my introduction to an evening of readings and music at Deutsches Haus at NYU on October 30, 2007. I dedicate it to my father, Horst Grothus, who was reading Doktor Faustus for the “Bookworm Club” of the Amerikahaus in Karlsruhe when he first met my mother in 1948.