Thomas Mann’s hidden debt to Danish Gothic

Thomas Mann’s extraordinary 1947 exploration of 
 the diabolical strains within human creativity (here in its Penguin Spanish edition)

After six months or so of deep reading, I began writing up this essay at the beginning of what Christians celebrate as Lent (early March 2022). A time of fasting and reflection. It coincides with a volatile time in European and world history as Russian forces invaded Ukraine just prior to the start of Lent. The essay, therefore, became more urgent for me as it reflects on Thomas Mann’s reaction to the growth of Nazism and blind militarism in his novel Doctor Faustus. The true Christian message of love and social justice (the embracing of the other) as extolled by Kierkegaard and explored by Mann in this novel becomes more important than ever. Social justice of course is a broadly left wing concern that goes beyond those who profess the importance of Christ’s message. However, in all idea systems, if the idea of Love and Mercy is not there, I cannot see how they can prosper. This was the central concern for both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. All the artist can do is profess (create). I believe a genuine artist cleaves to the Good, even when exploring evil, another concept Mann ponders in this important novel.

(For sources, see * at the end of the essay)

I first read Thomas Mann’s musical plunge into that place where the artistic and diabolical can meet – his Doctor Faustus – whilst still a young man. I understood very little of it. However, in fairness to my younger self, this ambitious and conflicted novel not only contains a very large cast, it is also deeply steeped in musical theory. There are, for example, reams of pages devoted to the construction of a fugue and detailed discourse about which composers could handle such an intricate, contrapuntal device. The decidedly dark central character in the novel – the brilliant but blighted composer, Adrian Leverkühn – who makes a Faustian pact with the Devil, seeks (I now perceive) the elemental tones and chords that underpin all music and therefore all utterances. It is not that he is a bad person, though he is by no means sympathetic. Like Nietzsche, on whom he is partly based, Leverkühn is a cultural aristocrat; a brilliant scholar and musical protégé. He turns his back on a choice of glittering career options so as to immerse himself in the craft of composing music scores. The phrase ‘perfecting his craft’ is perfect for him. ‘The Craft’, we recall, being the phrase used by Freemasons for their secret fraternity, also. Craft as deceit is strong in this novel.

Just as with Goethe’s Faust, what Leverkühn craves is ultimate knowledge. Immediacy of knowledge, so that he can fully consummate his craft. The ineffable musical rhythm of all existence. A continuing ‘being in the moment’ of music, so as not to have to ponder and reflect. Pure polyphony without the dissonance of clever inflections and reflections, which came with the rise of the musical canon and tonal artifice. It is not the case of Leverkühn wanting something new to compose, sing and create. Primordial utterances and incantations (via our vocal chords) are, after all, ancient and the root of both music and irrational magic. And to get the magic back – after centuries of superb but deadening musical devices – was clearly Leverkühn’s urge. He rebels against established artistic form itself in the manner of a latter day Satan. Even to the extreme point of deliberately contracting a virulent strain of syphilis via the Devil’s proxy whore, Esmerelda. Thus he teeters on the brink of ‘art for art’s sake’. Art, no matter how brilliant, without a moral compass. Fanatical, therefore. Or this is the debate he symbolises at least. The dangers – indeed the sin – of trying to create a Ground Zero by going behind the veil of human culture. Maybe he leaped in a different direction, however, and not even Thomas Mann saw it. Like Stanley Cavell – not to mention Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan) and James Joyce – I believe that properly drawn characters of fiction are autonomous beings. It seems to me that Leverkühn leaped clear of his creator and lukewarm humanism and, inspired by Danish Gothic, embraced a higher power as his only means of redemption. Possibly.

I suspect that, subliminally at least, Thomas Mann intuited that, in terms of aesthetics and moral philosophy, Leverkühn’s dilemma is similar to that of the Aesthete in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, who becomes so bored with the plethora of art forms he begins to seek ways of disrupting art itself – reading a book out of sequence for example, or going to the Opera and leaving halfway through the performance. If things are not new to him, they are meaningless. The lifestyle of the cynic, whose logic propels this type to the horror of the seducer, Johannes, in that same famous volume by Kierkegaard, whose pleasure is not the act but the setting of the trap. The scheming and plotting. The master puppeteer who has total control over the lives of others. Spiritual rape. Johannes the Seducer in Either/Or is Kierkegaard’s alarum at the demise of decency and high standards in culture. The rise of the boors and philistines as our lodestars. Along with Dostoevsky and Herman Melville, Kierkegaard is warning about shallow relativism in discourse and the rise of the cynical demagogue who could make life relevant and meaningful again now that social values had been crushed and God cancelled. At one point in their gripping encounter, the Devil tells Leverkühn that artists are the brothers of felons and lunatics. And if that is the case, how best to deal with the legacy of someone – a country even – that succumbs to ‘moral-less’ art and banal fanaticism? The realm of Evil. (We bear in mind that Mann wrote Doctor Faustus between 1943 and 1947, as the horrors and implications of Nazism grew ever clearer.)

The Danish grasp of the demonic was always strong as this medieval church fresco
– one of many in Denmark – demonstrates (Keldby Church Fresco, Møn Island, Denmark – National Museum)

However, if any philosopher is used as a motif for Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the established wisdom is that Leverkühn is a metaphor, not for Kierkegaard or one of his characters, but for the supposedly syphilis stricken Nietzsche. That is of course part of Thomas Mann’s point with his version of the Faust myth and he made this clear. But it is not the whole point. Nor is it even the key point, which has Kierkegaard and Danish Gothic at its centre. (It may well be that neither Nietzsche nor Kierkegaard for that matter, ever had any syphilitic symptoms.) Moreover that self-investigatory, aesthetically self-reflecting strain of Gothic introspection inherent to Danes also includes here, perhaps, the influence of one of my favourite Danish authors – Henrik Pontoppidan. As we shall see, ignoring Danish influence is the norm amongst many critics and experts, but was even Thomas Mann himself fully aware, as he composed this work, of the Danish Gothic dreams and impulses – not to mention nightmares – his Muse brought to his prodigious imagination? It seems not. Put simply, Mann not only glossed over (deliberately?) much of the Danish influence in this novel, he also made the mistake of assuming that Danes are closet Germans. He is not the only German to have done that.

Mann draws the severe and aloof central character (the aforesaid Adrian Leverkühn), very well. The same goes for Leverkühn’s exaggeratedly amateur biographer in the novel, Serenus Zeitblom, whose name implies an essential placidness and product of his time. The novel suggests very strongly that these two characters – who are friends from childhood – are divided elements of a single self. Or as Zeitblom puts it towards the end of the novel, they are ‘alter-egos’. All the key events in the novel happen either side of the first world war, with Zeitblom drawing together his biography of the now dead Leverkühn (by 1919) from his own memory, correspondence with his old friend and private papers bequeathed to Zeitblom by Leverkühn or discovered later by him. These include the shattering secret document in Leverkühn’s own hand in which the composer reveals his Faustian pact. Zeitblom then writes his Leverkühn biography in the shadow of Nazism as the second world war unfolds. Mann had clearly consulted Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen when composing the novel, but not clearly enough.

Fortuitously, much of my own understanding of the Faust myth comes from Kierkegaard. The perennial idea of Faust features prominently, amongst many other Kierkegaard places, in Fear and Trembling and, more pertinently for this essay, his study of Mozart’s Don Juan (Mozart’s Don Giovanni – 1787), which features outstandingly in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (1843). The full title of the Don Juan treatise is, ‘The Immediate Erotic stages, or the Musical-Erotic.’ We can see why Leverkühn would be attracted to Kierkegaard. There are also numerous references to Faust in Kierkegaard’s private journals and notebooks, especially in the early phases. Kierkegaard was more than aware of the original Latin meaning of ‘Faustus’ as a name, or adjective, for a propitious omen, or ‘fortunate’, and that this in its medieval guise often implied a magician, or one who could do difficult – marvellous – things. Evoking the human urge to go beyond themselves and do great things – steal the fire of the gods, with the risk always of being burned. It is one of the things that makes us ‘not animals’. Close to the gods. Close to felons and lunatics.

Kierkegaard’s Either/Or contains a celebrated study of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Don Juan) and is a key text in Thomas Mann’s
Doctor Faustus

Kierkegaard’s interest in Faust stretched far beyond the link with Don Juan. Broadly, and most perceptively, Kierkegaard appends psycho-spiritual aspects to three key conceptual archetypes that stand outside of religious considerations – Don Juan, Faust and Ahasuerus (the wandering Jew): – Don Juan as the sensual demonic (a negative force of nature – expressed through music); Faust as the tortured demon (the essence of doubt or scepticism – expressed through drama); Ahasuerus as the ultimate expression of rootless despair (the harrowing, pathological demonic – expressed through the epic).If we accept Kierkegaard’s argumentation, it is to Ahasuerus – to the epic and ultimate despair – that Faust/Leverkühn must go if he is to get beyond it. For Mann, as for Goethe’s Faust before him, he never gets there. But how deeply did Mann research Kierkegaard whilst writing his version of Faust? I cannot claim to be an expert in this regard, but it appears Mann read Either/Or, but no other primary source whilst completing Doctor Faustus, and he does not make many references to Kierkegaard in general. The same goes for critics and reviewers of the novel. It seems that Mann may have read more of Kierkegaard’s own works after publishing Doctor Faustus. Thus, in the main. I have relied on the text that is before me in the novel and analysis of what others have said in what appear to be the most relevant academic texts on Mann’s Faust – few of which even mention Denmark never mind any serious comment on Kierkegaard’s influence. Be this as it may, it is no accident that Kierkegaard features prominently, and quite early, in Doctor Faustus; well before the climactic moment in which Kierkegaard’s Don Juan is moved centre stage; as is (by the way) Hans Christian Andersen’s Faustian Little Mermaid.

A farm estate in Thuringia

The Kierkegaard harbinger early in Doctor Faustus comes when, as part of a group of callow students, Zeitblom and Leverkühn begin to discuss theology, amongst many other things, whilst sleeping overnight in a barn on the outskirts of Apolda in central Thuringia. Though apart from Zeitblom they are theology students, Zeitblom tells us that they are all “sons of the Muses.”

Here is this Kierkegaard dialogue, and it is the allegedly nihilistic aristocrat Leverkühn who speaks:

I’m aware that the most talented among you, who have read your Kierkegaard, locate truth, even ethical truth, entirely in subjectivity and reject with horror collective life in the herd. But I cannot join you in your radicalism– which is the license of students, by the way, won’t last long – in your Kierkegaardian separation of Church and Christianity.’

Just for the hell of it (which seems fitting), I reproduce here the full dialogue from above in Mann’s original German text:

Leaving aside Leverkühn’s interestingly incorrect reference to Kierkegaard’s solipsism, the above is how the usually taciturn Leverkühn – who rarely joined the group on their excursions to the countryside – makes his first Kierkegaard intervention and he goes on to opine that, for all its collapse into bourgeois predictability, and despite Kierkegaard’s criticisms, the Church forms a bulwark against dissolution and madness. But why does he mention madness (Wahnsinn)? It is the first strong signal that Leverkühn is struggling with his conscience, with the possibility of sin and even insane acts. It is significant therefore, that only Mephistopheles raises with Leverkühn (during their subsequent and astonishing philosophical/theological debate) this obsessive composer’s struggles with Gewissensfragen – questions of conscience. For it is the Kierkegaardian lore of human conscience and its concomitant promise of Mercy (forgiveness) with which not only Leverkühn struggles, but also Thomas Mann.

Not long after the enjoyable discussion amongst the students in their country retreat, a smirking porter by the nickname of ‘Schleppfuss’ (we night say ‘Dragfoot’ or even ‘Cloven foot’) will lead Leverkühn from his new lodgings in Leipzig to a bawdy house where he will have his first slight, but fateful, brush with the “nut brown lass in a Spanish jacket” – Esmerelda. We have met a Schleppfuss character before in this novel, in the guise of an “ambiguous” university lecturer. Then, after finally pursuing and consummating both his syphilitic bond with Esmerelda and later on his musical ‘revelation-pact’ with Mephistopheles, Leverkühn will come to wear an emerald ring within which a serpent is engraved. This of course is Esmerelda’s ring (though she, too, has other names). Esmerelda meaning ‘emerald’. An emerald ring and a token of their illicit union. Though it is undeniably a cry for love, as well. The ring also encompasses a reference to Apollo and an augury to unholy artists. A poisonous butterfly hovers there, too. Shapeshifting and mimesis are vital motifs in this novel.

Again, as we move to the heart of the novel, and though little commented upon, Kierkegaard’s view of conscience and forgiveness does indeed lie at the heart of the breathtaking moment when the Devil (in the shapeshifting guise of his avatar Mephistopheles) appears before Leverkühn at a farmstead outside Rome. This farm is at Palestrina, mentioned in Dante’s Inferno as Praeneste, and once home to a contrapuntal composer of the same name – (Palestrina) who was popular with certain pro-Nazi critics and musicians. And just so that we are left in no doubt as to Kierkegaard’s importance, Leverkühn tells us he was reading the ‘Don Juan’ treatise from Either/Or when Satan flowed in, as an icy, bone chattering miasma.

‘Sat alone here in these halls, near unto the windows, their shutters closed tight, the length of the room before me, and by my lamp read Kierkegaard on Mozart’s Don Juan.’

The constant chill emanating from Satan is a brilliant touch by Mann but his confusion and conflation of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche is writ large here. Subsequently, as the Nazi regime collapsed and Germany with it, Mann would speak publicly of Nietzsche’s obsession with negative power and his raising of an “icy, satanic fist against life.” But the context of this diabolical encounter is clearly Christian and nothing to do with a Nietzsche who sought to go beyond Good and Evil. Kierkegaard on the other hand insisted that our conscience (and therefore the idea of selfishness and sin) is within us whether we like it or not. And it is none other than Adrian Leverkühn who raises Kierkegaard and his idea of ultimate Christian Mercy as his last card against the otherwise seductive hand held by the Devil. He warns the Devil that there is:

A sinfulness so hopeless that it allows its man fundamentally to despair of hope is the true theological path to salvation.’

One of the countless books and legends about Mephistopheles whom Kierkegaard describes in The Concept of Anxiety as the essence of mimicry (mimesis)

We need to emphasize the importance, and by turns enthralling and appalling nature, of this Faustian encounter. It really is worth reading Mann’s novel for this diabolical corruption scene alone – or the attempt at corruption, we might say. With this gripping moment, Thomas Man brought all his virtuosity to bear – the initial repartee; the metaphysical jousting; Leverkühn’s chattering teeth in the Satan-conjured bone chilling draft, and that very Devil’s quick-change dress sense. Conjured or otherwise, this demon is graphically real. As all our demons are so very real to us, precisely because of our conscience. But most of all, and what rather shockingly has gone under the literary radar is that this whole chapter is a deep meditation on, not only Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, but a range of Kierkegaard’s other ideas also. There are of course the influences of other philosophers in this book, not least Aristotle and Augustine, but Mann’s context here is clearly Kierkegaard.

So Mann has imagined an interview with the Devil which explores Kierkegaard’s aesthetics and Mephisto goes on to praise “this Christian (Kierkegaard) who is enamoured of aesthetics” because he (Kierkegaard) knows his Devils and his music. A further examination, in this Socrates-like exchange, of the role of the artist, bearing in mind that Kierkegaard stressed the demonic propensities of music in which – via passion – ‘comprehension and corruption’ can become one. Or as the Devil puts it – als welche nämlich Erkenntnis und Verfallenhweit ist in einem. In isolation – that is, without humanity – music is demonic and corrupting. Thomas Mann himself has referred in his own writings to the influence of Kierkegaard’s Don Juan essay in Either/Or, which he read in German, and has referred to and underlined the exact passage from the book in which Kierkegaard notes how Christian lore, by acknowledging the melding of comprehension and corruption within music, acknowledges the demonic in music. Here is the exact text from Kierkegaard’s Don Juan treatise in Danish (in Either/Or), where Kierkegaard speaks of the genius of the sensual erotic in music.

It should probably be stressed here that Kierkegaard is not arguing against music as a form of entertainment, artform and cultural resource. He was a connoisseur of all these things. What Kierkegaard is doing is identifying the various pure emotions that music can convey and because, after Socrates, Christianity made individuals self-aware – much to Nietzsche’s chagrin – rather than innately and immediately reconciled with art, a psychological shift took place in society. Take Love, for example, which is closely connected with music. In ancient Greece, Love was seen as being housed and conveyed by the god Eros. It was a concept. A concept carried by a god. With the rise of individual awareness, Love’s fires became stoked in each person’s heart and Eros was reduced to no more than a symbol. Similarly, music was mostly conveyed by Apollo and Pan and was provoked, of course, to uproar by Dionysus. But when music became mediated within human reason and reflection within each person it moved into the realm of language. However where it remains in its immediate, pure erotic and sensual state and transports us, as with Mozart’s Don Juan, it conveys the demonic. Mozart’s Don Juan could no more stop seducing than the world stop spinning. Love and human emotions have nothing do with it. And with this we can see why Kierkegaard placed the Faust myth within music. This is the context for the above passage that Thomas Mann was so taken by in Kierkegaard’s Don Juan. And here is the exact same place from the German translation of Kierkegaard’s Don Juan treatise, which Thomas Mann placed in brackets and with ‘Christian art’ and ‘the demonic’ underlined by Mann.

I have paraphrased the English translation of the above from Kierkegaard’s Don Juan, so as to facilitate not just its literal statement but its context and meaning:

The significance of music hereby reveals itself in its full validity, and in a stricter sense it also reveals itself as a Christian art; or rather that artform Christianity posits by excluding itself from it. That is, as being the medium Christianity excludes from itself, and thereby comes to define. In other words, music is demonic.

I am indebted to Thomas A Kamla and his short 1979 monograph (‘Christliche Kunst mit negativem Vorzeichen”: Kierkegaard and Doktor Faustus’) on Mann’s use of Kierkegaard’s Don Juan in this novel. And as Kamla points out, Mann also used the writings of Theodor Adorno and Georg Brandes on Kierkegaard during his research for his Faust book. With Adorno this was, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic and in Brandes case, his brilliant but sometimes contradictory book on Kierkegaard (the first real in depth study). Brandes, who initially saw himself as a successor to Kierkegaard but became a fervent atheist, stressed Kierkegaard’s self-torment – his thorn in the flesh – which has variously been ascribed to syphilis, melancholy and the alleged Christian obsession with sin. Of these, we can say that there is no doubt that Kierkegaard explored the question of sin in a unique – but liberating – way.

Thomas Mann’s book on the creation of his Doctor Faustus.
He not only misunderstood the Danish psyche, but possibly that of his own people

To remove any doubt as to Kierkegaard’s central presence within Mann’s Doctor Faustus, we can quote Mann himself, who made this very point in his book about the genesis of his Faust novel – Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus (see above), where he remarks on the extraordinary affinity between Kierkegaard’s Don Juan specifically and Either/Or in general even before he had read Kierkegaard: “The affinity of the novel with Kierkegaard’s world of ideas, without any knowledge of it, is highly remarkable,” he said. It is also important, however, to bear in mind that Mann felt that Kierkegaard was overheated. In a May 1945 lecture for the Library of Congress – Germany and the Germans – and now as an exile in the USA, Mann describes Kierkegaard’s Don Juan essay as “painfully enthusiastic”. Furthermore and here is my central point with this essay on Danish Gothic, this is what Mann goes on to say in this lecture vis-à-vis his Faust novel and the German people:

“ I really don’t know why I am conjuring up these early memories here and now. Is it because … I am trying to suggest a secret union of the German spirit with the Demonic, a thesis which is, indeed, part of my inner experience, but not easily defensible?
(‘Germany and the Germans’ – Presented at the Library of Congress May 29,1945)

In other words, in a lecture entitled ‘Germany and the Germans’ whilst he is in the middle of writing Doctor Faustus, Mann makes a direct link between Kierkegaard’s worldview and that of what he sees as an inclination to the demonic within the German people and how Goethe was wrong not to make Faust a musician. We should look at this quote in slightly extended form:

‘It is a grave error on the part of legend and story not to connect Faust with music. He should have been musical, he should have been a musician. Music is a demonic realm; Søren Kierkegaard, a great Christian, proved that most convincingly in his painfully enthusiastic essay on Mozart’s Don Juan. Music is Christian art with a negative prefix. Music is calculated order and chaos-breeding irrationality at once, rich in conjuring, incantatory gestures, in magic of numbers, the most unrealistic and yet the most impassioned of arts, mystical and abstract. If Faust is to be the representative of the German soul, he would have to be musical.’

You can see where Mann is going with this and how he gets his philosophical, theological and aesthetic wires crossed. Leverkühn wants immediacy back: magic, passion, the end of convolutions, the sensual and the technical all of a piece. A harking back to an Arcadian time when music was not mediated or second guessed. This was very much a theme with Nietzsche; that culture had to be reunited with time, in which case society would be more settled and in harmony. So music as a force of nature again under and mediated by those who had sufficient genius, will and fortitude to teach others by example and wisdom – Übermenschen. There are glimpses of this with Leverkühn who gains a cult following. However, and though Mann would disagree – influenced as he no doubt was by Nazi bowdlerising of Nietzsche’s teachings – Nietzsche was not the epitome of extreme German, brooding philosophical menace, he has often been portrayed as being. And anyway, in its most advanced and revelatory manifestations, psychological brooding is a Danish Gothic propensity, as Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen have demonstrated par excellence, and as demonstrated by none other than Thomas Mann in this novel.

Mette Blok’s brilliant book on Nietzsche, which the author is translating at the moment

At the moment, I am translating Danish academic Mette Blok’s excellent book on Nietzsche – ‘Nietzsche as Educator’ (Nietzsche som Etiker in the Danish), which gives us an alternative view of Nietzsche and shows that he has a lot to teach us about how we can be reconciled with existence and enjoy it in all its aspects – good and bad. But, though some of
their ultimate goals were the same, Nietzsche was the complete opposite to Kierkegaard who rooted his subjectivity in divine forgiveness and the need to embrace God’s love through Christ’s paradox of lifting us beyond our own selfish interests (sin). Nietzsche also denounced Socrates who was a guiding light for Kierkegaard, because with him the individual, rather than high culture in society, was made central. Moreover, it seems clear from the above that Mann completely misunderstood the separate psychological mindsets of Danes and Germans.

Friedrich Hegel – the true spirit of a truly cultured Germany?

I know next to nothing about anthropology or ethnology and am neither a sociologist nor a social scientist. Thus, and no doubt because of my background in linguistics, any broad views I have of national propensities are informed by my view of the language spoken in that national arena. Mostly, this concurs with those countries where I have spent sufficient time to absorb at least some of the culture and discourse. This means that I feel largely unable to comment on most national sensibilities across the world as I don’t know the relevant language. Where Germany is concerned – a place where I have spent lots of time – I have always felt that the national character, as much as we can speak of one, is like the language, prone to desiring cohesion rather than intense subjectivity. The words that come to me are: statuesque, imposing, very structured and with a grand vision. It seems to me that Friedrich Hegel, not unlike Goethe, encapsulates the German psyche in its positive regards. Germany is far more Hegel than Nietzsche. And it was Hegel who pronounced the death of God long before Nietzsche. Much to Kierkegaard’s annoyance, Hegel constructed a whole system of thought and dialectics – a huge agglomerating opera if you like. Whereas the Danish psyche is psychological and wholly interior. Heidegger wrote Sein und Zeit, whilst Niels Bohr went ever inward to the nucleus of the atom. Hitler’s raucous shouts for Lebensraum were part of, and engendered, a mass psychosis – the complete opposite of subjective angst.

I always get the impression that Bismarck and the Prussian officer Junker class were the real core elements of the haughty German xenophobia to come. In The Death of Tragedy, George Steiner writes of the Germanic spirit having: “a grave strength, but flagrant streaks of brutality and intolerance.” If we can ignore Capitalism’s crisis and its ratcheting up of antisemitism, for a moment, it wasn’t Hitler’s brooding nature that enraptured so many Germans but the patriotic marching columns and the bombast. The Danish painter Asger Jorn is one of the few who have made this point about Nazism. The faux neo-Roman theatre of it all with its standards, flags and phalanxes. A whole people who suddenly felt they had a destiny. Indeed in Mann’s novel, Zeitblom speaks (mournfully) of “the hope and pride that is roused in Germans whenever German power is unfolded.” Germans are, he says, a people “whose soul is powerfully tragic.” All this collective angst is about as far from Kierkegaard’s personal soul searching as you can get.

The Danish psyche is (like its silken language) akin to the subtle and cunning dwarf-forged chain Gleipnir that was placed around the Fenris Wolf – devious, sinuous, gripping, reflexing ever more tightly as the wolf struggles. Moving inward, ever ironically inward, around the throat. An ironic, permanently binding sliver of cord made from the breath of a fish, the sinews of a bear and the spittle of a bird. When in his above lecture, Mann spoke of “lonely thinkers and searchers who carried Germany off to the Devil,” he may have been politically targeting Nietzsche but in his subconscious he was dreaming a bad caricature of Kierkegaard:

‘A lonely thinker and searcher, a theologian and philosopher in his cell who, in his desire for world enjoyment and world domination, barters his soul to the Devil, isn’t this the right moment to see Germany in this picture, the moment in which Germany is literally being carried off by the Devil?’

It is for the above reasons of confusion and conflation that Mann clearly does not know what to do next with his brilliant devil’s corruption scene. For just after the point where Leverkühn has said that true remorse is the remorse of Cain who believes he can never be forgiven, not even by God, and therefore holds out the idea of redemption (for in true Kierkegaardian fashion, the heartfelt remorse is proven) we leave this scene, never to return to it. In other words, and disappointingly, this brilliantly depicted seduction scene (or self-seduction?) is never mentioned again, except at the very end of the novel as Leverkühn suffers a mental collapse. Yet we are only halfway through the book. We then get a digression that is so long we almost forget Leverkühn altogether. The terror and potential catharsis in the scene is dissipated. A dereliction on the part of Mann and his editor, in this author’s view. Instead, Mann proceeds to introduce us to a range of people in Zurich’s salon and artistic spheres, all of whom have some sort of connection to Leverkühn and Zeitblom but whose role in the novel is to carry the Weimar Republic versus Nazi debate. They are all very interesting but pale in comparison to what we had experienced in that Palestrina farmstead in the long ago. We are dealing with two different novels.

Kierkegaard’s notebooks are replete with references to the Faust myth
– here from Journal BB (1836), headlined ‘Literature on Faust’
(The outer section of the page being left for subsequent corrections as was the practice.)

Mann’s instincts in applying a caesura after Leverkühn’s confrontation with the Devil are good. The reader (and no doubt the writer) is exhausted, enervated, shaken to the bones by this encounter. What can possibly follow after this? In one of his journal entries Kierkegaard says that Goethe should never have written part two of his Faust tale. That is, that Goethe should have left Doctor Faustus in the state of wrestling with the Devil but not (eventually) released into salvation. It is his turmoil and debates with the Devil that make Faust so prominent on the world stage. In effect, Mann makes the same mistake as Goethe before him by removing Leverkühn from the discourse when what we are interested in is how Leverkühn is dealing with his demonic despair, which has become desperation – as with Ahasuerus – and possibly wins through it. His public confession at the end, I believe, points to his victory over Satan, not his defeat. Rather than introduce us to Zurich’s Café society, Leverkühn’s alter-ego Zeitblom could have explained how Leverkühn triumphed over fanaticism via sheer human fortitude and belief, which is the story Mann really wants to tell. And Zeitblom had the perfect device for Leverkühn becoming a Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith via Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid story, which is another Danish element central to Mann’s vision.

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (chasing her own poisonous butterfly?) – not the soppy fairy tale it is often portrayed as being, and a central motif for Thomas Mann’s Faust.

In this very carefully planned and composed work, Mann’s use of Danish Gothic themes is not just there for the sake of a flash of literary erudition; rather it is crucial to the novel. In the Devil’s pact scene in which Mephistopheles seeks to bypass Leverkühn’s Kierkegaardian forgiveness defence – his struggles with his conscience – the Dark One tells Leverkühn that the pains and tortures he will go through will be worth it, even though they might at times resemble the knife-blade leg jolts suffered by the mermaid as part of her price for fulfilling her wish to be human:

He (Mephisto) : “They are pains that one gladly and proudly takes in the bargain with pleasures so enormous, pains such as one knows from a fairy tale, pains like slashing knives, like those the little mermaid felt in the beautiful human legs she had acquired for a tail. You know Andersen’s little mermaid, do you not? What a darling that would be for you! Say but the word, and I shall lead her to your bed.”
I (Leverkühn): “If you could but keep silence, you jackanapes.”

In fact the Danish link goes even further than those two Romanticist dreamers of our terrors and elations – Kierkegaard and Andersen – because Leverkühn also refers to a sculpture by the classicist artist and sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (of Dano-Icelandic parentage) as being the source of Andersen’s reference to a statue adored by the mermaid. This had sunk to the depths after a shipwreck. This statue will come to remind her so much of the prince she rescued and caressed as she brought him to safety. Despite their age differences, Thorvaldsen and the younger Andersen were actually acquaintances, and had met both in Italy and in Denmark. Both were, rather unusually, from disadvantaged backgrounds. After his Devil encounter, Leverkühn is effusive in his praise of Andersen’s fairy tale and Zeitblom describes Leverkühn’s “love and admiration for the story”. Moreover, Leverkühn feels the need to mention Thorvaldsen to Zeitblom:

Leverkühn’s invocation of the Mermaid story and Thorvaldsen’s influence on
HC Andersen in Mann’s Doktor Faustus. This happens after the Devil has tempted him with the mermaid.

It is, surely, remarkable that Mann goes out of his way to reference Thorvaldsen in the context of Andersen’s Faustian Mermaid story? At the very least, this demonstrates not just a keen awareness on Mann’s part of Danish cultural life and its importance, but also the way in which it influenced his writing. Mann’s decision to include three Danish literary and artistic giants in this novel was, therefore, clearly deliberate. But then he was born in the imposing German, Hanseatic port of Lübeck, which is about as close to the territory of old Viking Age Denmark as you can get, before being considered at least half Scandinavian yourself. The strange thing is that in his book about the genesis and creation of his Doctor Faustus (see above), Mann makes no mention of either Hans Christian Andersen or Thorvaldsen. Nor is he overly effusive about Kierkegaard in any way.

This author’s translation of Henrik Pontoppidan’s A Fortunate Man
Thomas Mann’s praise for the novel and Pontoppidan graces the book’s cover.

To conclude, and I admit this is speculation, but given all the above, it is by no means of the idle variety. For as I reread Mann’s Doctor Faustus – alongside the text in German in its Fischer Verlag, Taschenbuch 2012 edition – the idea came very strongly to me that Mann’s novel (infused as it is with the Danish psyche) was also influenced by Henrik Pontoppidan’s A Fortunate Man (Lykke Per in the Danish). In 1927, on the occasion of Pontoppidan’s 70th birthday, Mann issued a public declaration of his admiration for Pontoppidan, in the context particularly of A Fortunate Man. Being aware of this led me to ponder whether Mann retained Pontoppidan’s vison and asked himself whether Leverkühn might have opted for the kind of personal redemption (in quiet stoicism and reflection on the part of Per Sidenius) with which A Fortunate Man ends? In a 1837 journal entry, Kierkegaard says that a modern Faust might well seek escape from his despair by renouncing the world, becoming a cowherd or moving to another world entirely. To illustrate this – in his superb essay on the Antigone myth in Either/Or – Kierkegaard says that in modern times a true Knight of Faith who has come through the fires of despair and great trauma would go quiet after that moment of revelation, as Antigone would have done. Her spiritual wound now being a subjective personal burden rather than a collective myth of catharsis. Maybe Henrik Pontoppidan knew his Kierkegaard and Faust better than Thomas Mann did. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard says that Goethe failed to give a deep psychological insight into Faust and that no modern poet had been able to do that either. Thomas Mann also fails. He seems to vacillate at the end, rather like the fickle Germans he portrays in part two of this novel. On the one hand, Leverkühn’s extraordinary confession raises him to cathartic heights. Then he is absolved by the saintly, salt of the earth, Frau Schweigestill (the quiet one, we note). But then he collapses unto death by way of what seems to be a lengthy diabolical paralysis. Contrast this with the unflinching Danish Gothic gaze of Henrik Pontoppidan and his Per Sidenius who knows exactly what he has to do. This is the key question for all Faust characters – what must I do? In A Fortunate Man, Per Sidenius shaped his own destiny in the end. A remarkable joining of Nietzschean Will with Kierkegaardian self-forgiveness and the forgiveness of others. Per Sidenius became a true Faustus: self-annealed by the purging and purification of his own soul to become Per the Fortunate. What a pity that Thomas Mann faltered and looked backwards when trying to raise himself to the heights of the Danish Gothic vision.

Mí an Mhárta/March 2022

  • A note on sources used:
    The English translation of the Doctor Faustus quoted here comes from John E Woods version (1997) alongside the text in German in its Fischer Verlag, Taschenbuch edition (2012). I did also consult the Everyman translation by H T Lowe-Porter (1992). The Kierkegaard texts quoted all come from the definitive online texts in Danish – Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter. I have also researched Kierkegaard’s journals and notebooks here, and from Peter P Rohde’s fine edition of selected extracts from his journals and notebooks (1961). The quotes from George Steiner are from his ground-breaking book The Death of Tragedy in the 1980 OUP New York edition. The public lectures given by Thomas Mann referred to were part of a remarkable – mid and post-second world war – series given under the auspices of the USA Library of Congress. These lectures span a thirty year period and were given by some stellar literati, including Thomas Mann, T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender and Saul Bellow, though the apparent absence of women authors and critics is striking. I believe the other books and sources referred to are self-explanatory, but readers are welcome to contact me for more information in this regard.