To have any worth at all, a course on twentieth century intellectual history would have to start with nineteenth century intellectual history, because any twentieth century intellectual history worth talking about is dependent on Friedrich Nietzsche, who died, conveniently enough, in l900, a date so perfect for the purposes of connecting the intellectual history – and perhaps not just the intellectual history – of the two centuries that it might make some wonder whether, despite what Nietzsche claimed, God is dead after all.
For at least the first third of the twentieth century, anyone who wanted to think seriously, or to write something that serious people would take seriously, read Nietzsche. The most important book of Martin Heidegger, the most profound thinker of the twentieth century, was not the famous and unfinished Being and Time, but his commentaries on Nietzsche himself. What some regard as the most profound novel of the twentieth century, Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, a novel about genius and madness, has as its central character a man unmistakably based on Nietzsche.
It goes further than that. It was Nietzsche, Mann admits, “to whom I looked as a master, for from the start he was not so much for me the prophet of some kind of vague ‘superman,’ as he was for most people when he was in fashion, as rather the incomparably greatest and most experienced psychologist of decadence.” (64) For Mann, decadence means most of what the modern world admires. Decadence meant civilization, democracy, the equal rights of everyone, progress, security, material abundance; it meant the “last man” of Friedrich Nietzsche, the man who aspires to nothing, who sees, and understands, no difference between what is noble and what is base, who thinks – who can think – of nothing except what he wants in the present moment, whose only desire is to be entertained. Civilization is at war with culture, which is “the principle of artistic organization and formation, of the life-preserving, life-glorifying principle.” (139) Culture is great art, and the greatest art is great music, and music, great music, destroys civilization, civilization understood as “modern ideas, Western ideas, the ideas of the eighteenth century.” (143)
The importance of culture, of music, was nowhere better understood than in Germany. For Thomas Mann it seemed obvious that “depth and irrationality suit the German soul, which shallower people find strange, disgusting, even savage.” It is “that daemonic and heroic something that resists accepting the civilian spirit as the highest human ideal.” (506) Three days after German troops invaded neutral Belgium and the First World War began, Thomas Mann wrote to his brother, Heinrich, “Shouldn’t we be grateful for the totally unexpected chance to experience such mighty things?” (vii) Famous, known throughout the world, the author of Buddenbrooks, for which he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mann greeted the war as a liberation. “Deep in our hearts we felt that the world, our world, could no longer go on as it had.” The world of the “last man” had to be destroyed. “Didn’t it seethe and stink of civilization’s decay?” (496)
This was no passing thought, the immediate, but short-lived, enthusiasm of a German patriot. Mann had not only “lived in a certain protest against this material culture….,” but his work, the fiction he wrote, “has meant hardly anything less than intellectual criticism of reality.” All of which culminated in an article, ‘Thoughts In Wartime,’ written at the beginning of the war. The First World War, the Great War, was not a war for territory; it was not a war of imperialism or revenge. It was a war for culture and against civilization, a war in defense of the deeper feeling of great art, a war against domesticated, politically demoralizing capitalism, a nation of bourgeois philistines. It is why, for Thomas Mann, “only a German victory can guarantee the peace of Europe.”
Instead of a German victory, there was a German defeat, but the question whether this meant the defeat of culture and the victory of civilization became a question that made a mockery of reason, and made Thomas Mann turn against the country whose victory he had thought the only chance to save the world. In l930, when the Nazis were about to take control, Mann wrote another article, this one entitled, ‘An Appeal To Reason,’ in which he described in a single sentence German’s pact with the devil: “Fanaticism turns into a means of salvation, enthusiasm into epileptic ecstasy, politics becomes an opiate for the masses, a proletarian eschatology; and reason veils her face.” Three years later, in l933, when Hitler came to power. Mann, on a European tour lecturing on Richard Wagner and the effect of his music, was urged by family and friends not to return. After five years in Switzerland, he emigrated to the United States where, living in Los Angeles, he wrote Dr. Faustus, the novel Mann considered the novel of the twentieth century.
Mann began writing Dr. Faustus in l943, or, as Mann writes, Mann’s character, Serenus Zeitbloom, Ph.D., began writing the tragic story of his friend, Adrian Leverkuhn on May 27, 1942, three years after Leverkuhn’s death, “three years, that is, after he passed from deep night into the deepest night of all.” Bloom is not writing a novel; he is writing the biography of a musician of genius; writing it, moreover, in the middle of a war, a world war, which unlike the first one, the one in which Thomas Mann hoped for a German victory, Zeitbloom hopes for a German defeat. The “national new birth of ten years ago, that seemingly religious intoxication – which then betrayed itself to any intelligent person for what it was by its crudity, vulgarity, gangsterism, sadism, degradation, filthiness,” has brought German to the brink of destruction. The Germans, “who trod the boards of history as the heralds and bringers of a world-rejuvenating barbarism,” had instead sent Germany and half the world on the road to hell. The question is not why Germany entered into a new age of barbarism, but why Germany had chosen the wrong form of barbarism to pursue.
Adrian Leverkuhn had understood, from the beginning, as it were, that there was a choice and what that choice entailed. A brilliant student, he looked down on the subjects of the various branches of learning which, like Nietzsche, on whom Thomas Mann has modeled him, he “so competently and carelessly dismissed. Serenus Zeitbloom, a traditional scholar who loves the ancient languages and the ancient authors, listens and records Adrian’s complaint that the present age “is civilization,” and that “we should have to become very much more barbaric to be capable of culture again.” The bridge, the connecting link, between barbarism, i.e., the rejection of the comfortable self-preservation of twentieth century Europe, and culture is music, the “most intellectual of the arts,” the only one in which “form and content are interwoven and absolutely one and the same.” Music addresses itself to the ear, but only in so far as hearing, like seeing and the other senses, “is the deputy, the instrument, and the receiver of the mind.”
Adrian, like Nietzsche, suffers from blinding, disabling, migraine. Like Nietzsche, he also contracts syphilis, but unlike Nietzsche he gets it on purpose. Adrian had no interest in women, or anything else that has to do with human passion. He had gone to a brothel with friends and, while he had done nothing, he met a women, Esmeralda, to whom he feels strangely drawn. Months later, when he goes back to find her, she warns him she has the disease, but that is precisely the reason he has come: “what compulsion to compromise the punishment in the sin, finally what, deep, deeply mysterious longing for daemonic conception, for a directly unchaining of chemical changes in his nature was at work, that having been warned he despised the warning and insisted upon possession of this flesh?”
Like Faust, Adrian wanted something only the devil – the angel of death – could give him. Halfway through Dr. Faustus, in chapter 25, Adrian’s ‘secret record’ is revealed, a dialogue with the devil that his friend, Zeitbloom, “cannot believe in the depths of his soul Adrian himself considered to be actual that which he saw and heard – either while he heard and saw it or afterwards, when it put it on paper….” It is perhaps an entirely fictional account, a dialogue, not with the devil , but with Adrian’s own darker side, the madness that is the source of his remarkable genius, the madness he needed, and deliberately acquired, to accomplish what he had to achieve.
It was “our plan,” the devil tells him, that he should “run into our arms, that is, of my little one Esmeralda, and that you got it, the illumination, the aphrodisiacum of the brain.” The disease, the madness, is designed to progress slowly, giving him enough time, “years, decades,” of “divel-time, genius-time.” The disease is everything. It gives him the power to see, and to speak, with the devil, the angel of death. In a line Nietzsche could have written, and did, the devil tells Adrian that, “The artist is the brother of the criminal and the madman.” The artist, the musician, overthrows the existing order and replaces it with one of his own creation.
The disease, the gift that Adrian has chosen for himself, will give him the capacity for “A genuine inspiration, immoderate, absolute, unquestioned, ravishing, where there is no choice, no tinkering, no possible improvement, where all is as a sacred mandate, a visitation received by the possessed one with altering and stumbling step, with shudders of awe from head to foot, with tears of joy blinding his eyes: no, that is not possible with God, who gives the understanding too much to do. It comes but from the divel, the true master and giver of such rapture.” (237) This power, this gift of madness, will make Adrian the master of the future. “Not only will you break through the paralyzing difficulties of the time – you will break through time itself, by which I mean the cultural epoch and its cult, and dare to be barbarous, twice barbarous….”
Adrian is promised all this, and more; and only after twenty two years, too much time to worry about, will the devil come to take him. Having accepted the bargain, Adrian produces a new music. His last work, The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus, written as the counterpoint to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, is “the most frightful lament ever set up on this earth.” Leverkuhn’s Faust rejects the thought of being saved “because with his whole soul he despises the positivism of the world…the lie of its godliness.” The only solace left is at the end, after the last note is sounded, and there is nothing but silence, and the silence “abides as a light in the night.”
In the music, the new music of Adrian Leverkuhn, everything is based on a “fixed fundamental series. Not one note might recur until the other notes have sounded.” This is not “an arbitrary combination; rather it lies in the nature of things; it rests, I might say on the curvature of the world, which makes the last return into the first.” The new music of Adrian Leverkuhn, Schonberg is, like so much else in the novel, derived from Nietzsche’s teaching, in this instance, the eternal return of the same, the belief that everything is repeated, in exactly the same way it has happened before, over and over again, through all the infinity of time.
If the new music of Adrian Leverkuhn was derived from Frederick Nietzsche, the technique, the rigid requirements of the twelve tone scheme, was taken from the musical theories of Arnold Schonberg, as Mann acknowledged in a note at the end of the novel. Like Mann, Schonberg left Germany when Hitler came to power. Schonberg was Catholic, but the Nazis assumed that anyone named Schonberg must be a Jew. Mann had been lecturing on Richard Wagner when he was advised not to return to Germany. Schonberg was giving a concert in Paris when he was informed by the German authorities that, because he was a Jew, he had lost his position in Germany and could not return. Schonberg, this good German Catholic, went to the chief rabbi in Paris and in a supreme, perhaps unprecedented, gesture of defiance, converted and became a Jew. Arnold Schonberg and Thomas Mann were friends, fellow exiles living in Los Angeles, but after Dr. Fautus was published, Arnold Schonberg never spoke to Thomas Mann again.
Leo Strauss, who left Germany at nearly the same time as Arnold Schonberg and Thomas Mann, once remarked that those were fortunate who preferred the novels of Jane Austin to those of Thomas Mann. I was not quite sure what he meant when I heard him say that, but now, on this, the third reading of Dr. Faustus, I think I know exactly what he meant.