First Impressions on Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus

I have just begun to read, at the strong behest of a friend (in fact he even bought me the book), Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann. I think I am in for a long, wild ride into the world of mid-twentieth-century German intellectualism. And I am very excited, geeky as that may be. From what I can tell so far, it’s about the nature of intellectual and artistic genius, and particularly its dark side, as it is a reworking of, naturally, the Faust legend (the demonic side of genius, deals with the devil, etc. etc.). The prose in John E. Woods’s translation, moreover, is dazzling. Here are two quotations that have got me swooning in giddy, ecstatic, nerdy delight, and generally excited for that subgenre referred to as the “Novel of Ideas.”

Culture, specifically in its flowering in the humanities, is a beautiful thing, which embeds itself in the culture as a form of a tradition, passed on through what the narrator refers to here as pedagogy:

I cannot help savoring that inner and almost myserious bond between my interest in classsical philology and a lively and loving eye for man’s beauty and the dignity of his reason—a bond made manifest in the very name we give the study of ancient languages, the “humanities,” whereby the psychological connection between linguistic and human passion is crowned by the idea of pedagogy, so that the call to be an educator of the young proceeds almost as a matter of course from one’s vocation as a scholar of language. The man of the exact sciences can, of course, become a teacher, but never a pedagogue in the sense and to the degree that the disciple of bonae litterae can.

But the beauty of that culture comes at a price. Here the narrator is reflecting on a study trip to Greece, where he realized that the awakening of that beauty in the ancients was a ritualized form of acquiescence to a more potent, but much more dangerous power: a pact (hence, again, Faust).

As I gazed out from the Acropolis across to the Sacred Way, along which initiates to the mysteries had processed—adorned with the saffron band, the name of Iacchus on their lips—and then, upon arriving at the place of initiation itself, as I stood in the enclosure of Eubouleus under the overhanging rocks beside the cleft of Pluto, there and then I sensed something of the abundant feeling for life that found expression in the initiatory rites by which Olympic Greece honored the divinities of the deep; and later, behind my lectern, I often explained to my senior students how culture is actually the reverent, orderly, I may even say, propitiatory inclusion of the nocturnal and monstrous in the cult of the gods.

Again, my thoughts are first impressions, and I’ve been proven wrong before, but no matter what, I’m looking forward to a good read.


2 comments so far

  1. Dad on

    That should be a good read – unless one reads it wondering how an English grammar pedagogue would diagram the three sentences that comprise your two quotes.

  2. jeffreimer on

    A worthy exercise indeed!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: