Like King Charles’ head, Friedrich Nietzsche is always intruding in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Nietzsche functions as a talisman in Doctor Faustus, a deeply Romantic novel suffused with parodic twists. A talisman acts as a battery for some type of force or energy, or what David Winters describes as ‘a charm that we clasp to our hearts’. At risk of overextending the metaphor, that’s not a bad description of how I feel about Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which has rarely left my side for the last month.
‘Recognition,’ writes Rita Felski, ‘comes without guarantees; it takes place in the messy and mundane world of human action, not divine revelation.’ Doctor Faustus is by no means a perfect novel (whatever that might resemble). Its narrative frequently drags, sometimes almost intolerably. But there is also a deep intoxication at being absorbed in a novel that reveals, or at least tries to reveal, the rhythm of life.
As I read the last few highly charged chapters, set aside the finished book, and spent an hour gazing into the woods, I sense almost imperceptibly that my perspective is altered. The very best of fiction has this talismanic effect. Doctor Faustus, like Mann’s The Magic Mountain is one of the most intense, powerful reading experiences of my life. I am thrilled that it is over. I am mourning that it is over.
Good to hear you’ve finished Dr Faustus. Didn’t want to comment until you were done. I admire you for getting through it in a month-long sitting. It took me about six or seven months with frequent breaks for other books. I began with a lot of enthusiasm and found Zeitblom really funny at first but then got exasperated from time to time. I mean, why describe every fucking instrument in a very large orchestra? What I especially liked were the parts of the book where the broader political scene infiltrated the text with the growth of Nazism. I thought the sections where the translator (of the Vintage edition at least) did a pretty good job on what must have been the strange German in the early lectures and then in the Devil section. Even so, despite the intensity of the interview with the Devil, I still found myself getting exasperated with the long windedness. The scene of Leverkühn’s ultimate demise is particularly powerful. Anyway, this was a book that I had to read for various reasons, which I hope to tell you about in the near future. (Sorry to be so esoteric, this doesn’t mean anything weird.) It’s been good following your reading of Faustus. One of these days I’ll get around to The Magic Mountain. It’s been on my shelves for a long time. All good wishes to you. Des
Intrigued to learn more, when you can tell, of why reading Doctor Faustus was mandatory. From Magic Mountain, I knew I was in good hands and so never doubted I’d complete the reading. The last two hundred pages more than made up for some of the earlier grind of the musical and theological exposition. For the most part, even these sections I found wonderfully tedious rather than painfully so. Using Leverkühn/Zeitblum as a device to narrate the rise and fall of Nazi Germany was fascinating. Thanks for commenting and very best wishes. Anthony
Hello Anthony, I agree with you that “Nietzsche functions as a talisman in Doctor Faustus” – from what I understand of Nietzsche, that is (I am not well read in philosophy, and hae onlygingerly dipped my toe into Nietzsche’s writings). And yet, from what i remember (do please correct me if I am wrong) Nietszche is never mentioned in the novel – not once. For a novel that is so steeped in Germanic culture and thought, this does seem a strange omission, and I suppose it could only have been deliberate on Mann’s part. I have no idea why, though.
I’m sure the decision not to mention Nietzsche by name was deliberate. Without being a Nietzsche scholar to any degree, I’ve read most of his major works. The Leverkühn character may have been based on Nietzsche, but Mann’s political analysis of the Nazi era is clearly influenced by Nietzsche’s thinking.