American Gloom

Month: September, 2012

Mann’s Bible

by Ezekiel Fry

Thomas Mann works in mysterious circles. For the purpose of this examination I will merely tug at one of these Rembrandt-like circles: the framing of the connection, which runs throughout, between Leverkuhn and Zeitblom to the rise and fall of Nazism in Germany, and the underpinnings of distinct biblical scriptures that illuminate/muddy the issue. Doctor Faustus functions in many of the same ways as The Magic Mountain, but one can see the differences immediately in the style of narration. This is a tale with a definitive narrator. We are not watching the events unfold before us, through the eyes of omniscience, but, instead, we are seeing things through several layers of fog and separation. Mann goes to lengths in his forward to The Magic Mountain to explain to the reader that the story about to unfold is not about Hans Castorp, it is merely his story; whereas in Doctor Faustus we first learn of Dr. Serenus Zeitblom, our narrator, before ever embarking upon the story of Adrian Leverkuhn. Even before Zeitblom introduces himself as narrator, it is mentioned that the proceeding chapters are being penned after Leverkuhn’s death, and amidst the turmoil of World War II. Within these first few passages we see the detachment of the narrator, although he cares deeply for his deceased biographical subject. He will attempt to write a truthful account of a great man’s rise and fall, but he can only tell it at arm’s length. The intimacy with which Zeitblom treats Leverkuhn is outward only. We, as readers, are never given a true glimpse into the workings of Leverkuhn’s apparently tortured mind. Everything that is stated about the man must first go through the filter of Zeitblom’s sentimentality before reaching the page. This technique, along with the foreshadowing of Leverkuhn’s demise, and the placement of the time of writing, give an immediate sense of unstoppable doom around the entire text. The fall is coming, and much like God’s foreknowledge in Paradise Lost we know about it from the outset, but are incapable, or perhaps unwilling, to do anything about it.
Zeitblom’s immediate discussion of the time in which he is writing the story establishes this cloud of doom, and connects the fictive images of the story to the happenings—the recent history—of earthly reality. Mann writes, concerning the life of Adrian Leverkuhn:

I might compare his isolation to an abyss into which the feelings others expressed for him vanished soundlessly without a trace. All around him lay coldness—and what an odd sensation it is to use the very word that he himself once recorded in a horrendous context! Life and experience can lend individual words a certain accent that estranges them entirely from their everyday meaning and lends them an aura of dread that no one who has not met them in their most horrifying context can ever understand. (8)

It is first established here that Leverkuhn was somehow set apart from the rest of humanity. Mann will soon establish the many differences between his narrator and subject, but it is here that the genius’ doom is fully established. Mann uses the danger of a single word, filled with the meaning that life can give it, to encompass an entire nation’s mad descent into the pit. Leverkuhn, who in his artistic lineage represents the greatness of the German creative spirit, falls away and apart, from his contemporaries, he descends into the isolation of a self-created hell, mirroring the rise and fall of the Nazi regime. Warping the underpinnings until they are seemingly unrecognizable, Nazism ate away at the soul of Germany until it was left in a state of catatonic madness, much like Adrian’s fate. In this way, the zealotry of Nazism is synonymous with syphilis. By leaving the word unspoken throughout the text Mann strengthens its power to cast its shadow. The word itself, and this Mann certainly knew, holds “an aura of dread” that asserts itself even in silence.
This power of a word, or idea, especially unspoken is soon displayed in this passage regarding Zeitblom’s family:

Both my sons now serve their Fuhrer, one as a civil servant, the other in the armed forces, and just as my estrangement from my nation’s authorities has left a certain void around me, so, too one can only describe the ties of these young men to their quiet parental home as loose. (13)

Zeitblom dances around the actual nature of his country’s government, going only so far as to refer to the “Fuhrer” and his own “estrangement” from his government, but within these unspoken words lies the power to cast the shadow of dread. By referring to the Fuhrer, we, as readers, know perhaps even more strongly and ominously of whom Zeitblom is speaking. Hitler’s presence presides over the entire passage like the “horrifying context” first tackled in the previous passage. The word itself need not appear, and by word, we may see this also as idea or thought. But there is another, more troubling, relationship to these two passages that may be found in biblical sources.
In the Gospel of John it is written, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1.1). If we see this passage as literal, that God and the Word are one and the same—interchangeable—then it can be applied to the earlier passage from Mann concerning the aura surrounding a word. The “Word” implies omniscience—the ability to encompass all meaning, all words. The “word” of dread appears more specific, or perhaps singular in nature. Never the less, if the passage from John is followed to its conclusion in the narration of Zeitblom, we see a world rocked by “experience,” left seeing the Word in only its most dreadful and horrible attire. The God of the Word has not only been minimized and vilified, but in the wake of the inferred horror of World War II found to be evil, dead, or, perhaps most frighteningly, utterly indifferent. We see a God that seems to sit aloof, allowing his creation to fall into madness.
This concept of an aloof and indistinct God is further driven home by the experiments of Jonathan Leverkuhn. Concerning the wonders of nature, namely a mollusk’s shell, Mann writes:

To think that all those spirals and vaults (each executed with such marvelous self-assurance, the elegance of form as bold as it was delicate) with their pinkish entryways, their splendid, iridescent glazes, their multiform chambers, were the work of their own gelatinous inhabitants—at least if one held to the notion that nature does her own work and did not call upon the Creator, for there is something so strange about imagining Him as the inventive craftsman and ambitious artist of this glazed pottery that one is never more tempted than here to interpose a supervisory divinity, the Demiurge—I was about to say: to imagine these exquisite dwellings as the product of the mollusks they defend, that was the most astonishing thought. (19)

This sentence touches on all the foundational elements of Doctor Faustus, both as representation and literal narrative. Humankind, in the biblical and philosophical sense, serves as the Demiurge, creating the ideas behind all forms of life. The idea that God himself cannot be viewed as the artisan of such beautiful and intricate creations further expands the gulf between prime-mover and humanity as Demiurge. Perhaps God started the chain of events, but in its capacity—biblically—of naming and tending, humanity is the true creator of this visible world, from the meaning of the “Word”, to the reality of the “word” in relationship to the experience of life. Humankind cannot create life, merely structure and categorize it. This concept is further driven home by the melancholically tragic experiment that Jonathan Leverkuhn conducts with the crystal formations. Humankind may imitate, may strive towards creation, but the eventual outcome will be sad, and the hubris irreconcilable. The Nazis tried to recreate the world in their own image, only to see this act of supreme arrogance result in nothing more than the tragic experiment of creating that which appears to live, but only truly imitates Nature.
Finally, linking the themes of Adrian Leverkuhn’s pact—with its inherent setbacks and admissions of human frailty—one cannot help but be drawn to perhaps the most significant passage from the bible on the nature of mankind’s role, or restriction. Echoing the Classical themes of hubris and vengeance, Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew: For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (16.26). This single verse foreshadows the epic fall of the German people into the clutches of madness and avarice. Leverkuhn’s fall, and that of the German people, are both encapsulated within this single passage. Furthermore, the Zeitbloms of the world, in their God-like inaction, act as accomplices to the fall. Humanity becomes estranged from itself, no longer content to act as Demiurge and hoping to sit upon the throne of creation. Assuming the role of Gods, humankind turns a blind eye to the realities swirling around it, impotently hoping that someone else will intercede as the defender of the people. The playing field has indeed been leveled, equality with God has been achieved, but the reality of becoming God is the “horrifying context” Mann refers to, and nothing at all like “the everyday meaning.”

Nietzsche’s Chorus

by Ezekiel Fry

Within the context of Nietzsche’s early work (namely The Birth of Tragedy), particularly when focused on the great Tragedians of Greece, the art form of music is viewed as “the unmediated language of the will,” and “provides immediate insight into the Dionysian ‘truth’ of existence.” Only through Dionysian ambiguities and formless motions, of which music may certainly be considered one, may truth, understanding, and ultimately catharsis be discerned. Music is the unseen conductor of the grand arts of human nature—tragedy and renewal. The Tragic Chorus is a collection of voices raised to describe events and encounters within the course of the play. The Chorus also functions as a sounding board, a responding note, and a grim foreshadowing to the direful events which the protagonists of the play create. The Chorus does not enter into the action of the play per say, but instead acts as a conduit to the audience’s own reaction to the difficult emotions which the play encapsulates.
When looking at these two concepts in conjunction, the relationship between the two becomes clear. If , as Nietzsche states, the form of music, and more specifically “the spirit of music,” is the most efficient way to decipher “Dionysian ‘truth’” then it would seem natural that the musical accompaniment to a Greek tragedy—the Tragic Chorus—would be the “spirit of music.” Music cannot, in the everyday sense, be seen, only felt, and therefore is a truly faceless art form. The Tragic Chorus is very much in the tradition of these musical prerequisites. The inability to stand apart, to show a single face, and, most importantly, the inability to act, defines the Tragic Chorus. Within Aeschylus’ Oresteia the Chorus hears Clytemnestra slaying Agamemnon but cannot act against her cruelty. They can only debate on the validity of such an unfathomable action as truth. By the time the inquiry is complete the action has passed and Agamemnon has been slaughtered. Much like the audience, the Chorus seems unable to believe that such viciousness is reality. Through their sightless musings, their music, the full scope and power of the murder is realized.
As Nietzsche describes, it is through the musicality of this device that the strange nature of existence is quickly pounded home. Again, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the Chorus’ music draws out the great Oedipus’ doom. He functions within his own will, but this will is softly played upon by the Chorus’ notes. The Chorus’ ethereal mass voice wails for justice and relief from pain and Oedipus responds by vowing to find the source of this masked suffering. This vow leads to his ultimate downfall. It is the Chorus, and its music, that create the tone for truth and discovery that only the great kings may discern.

A Few Words on Nietzschean Duality

by Ezekiel Fry

Nietzsche’s statement, “Man, in his highest, finest powers, is all nature and carries nature’s uncanny dual nature in himself” attempts to deal with the duality of humankind. Within the natural casing of humanity lies the capability for great triumph and, in turn, great degradation. Even at the pinnacle of enlightenment the duality of humankind casts its profound shadow. Those that rise high may equally fall low. There are no constants for the dual nature of humankind, only the continual presence and possibility of both.
The statement “It is hard to fight against impulsive desire; whatever it wants it will buy at the cost of the soul” holds steady with this concept of duality. This musing on “impulsive desire” seems at first to play more heavily upon the ability for humans to fall than to rise, but it can be found that “impulsive desire” rules both aspects of humankind’s nature. Within the duality of the human mind there are checks and balances, natural devices, that attempt to sway the mind in one direction or another, but these battle-works of the mind are within nature—not without. Therefore they find it “hard to fight against” that which is in its very essence natural: “nature’s uncanny dual nature”. The “uncanny” aspect of this relationship emphasizes the discrepancy, which humankind finds within itself, to go against the checks and balances of the reasonable mind into the maw of violence, lust, and depravity. The natural world is abundant with coexisting compassion and violence. To step outside the reasonable mentality, that humankind has superficially crafted for itself, and place a bloody hand into chaos, is to lose one’s perception of reason— to step from constructed reality into the “uncanny” wilderness—and therefore lose that altogether human-made structure dubbed “the soul”.
It is not so much that “impulsive desire” is some malignant, otherworldly force, but instead it is the very root from which humankind grows—the root of nature. This disheartening prospect shakes the very foundations of humankind’s desire for reason and structure. The seeming cruel ambivalence of nature does not function well with the reasonable, quantifiable reality that humankind has constructed. This is the true “dual nature” of humanity. The soul defines humankind as something above nature; something better than the visceral animal world. As a construct the soul cannot fight nature. The idea that “it is hard to fight against impulsive desire” is in itself a fleeting statement. It is not hard to fight, it is impossible. The constructed aspect of the human cannot fight the inevitable. We feel that we lose a piece of ourselves, our rationality, when we submit to desire, but it is only through this desire—this natural aspect of our mirrored beings—that the highest and most noble achievements of our species are reached.