Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann Chapter III (sans first two paragraphs); from the 1947 translation)
This is not required reading. I post a lengthy (8 pages) of this novel as supplementary material towards understanding Goethe. A ‘thousand and one incidents’ that ‘fall away’ as the character of Jonathan manifests into the Goethian spirit in his love affair with nature. Which reveals his love affair with life.
(I provide italics for the more revealing passages; bold italics for a quick glance at phrases that may reveal more than the passages . . . Take a pass if feelings of indulgence or indolence permit)
Jonathan Leverkühn was a man of the best German type, such as one seldom sees now in our towns and cities, certainly not among those who today, often with blatant exaggeration, represent our German manhood. He had a cast of features stamped as it were in an earlier age, stored up in the country and come down from the time before the Thirty Years’ War. That idea came into my head when as a growing lad I looked at him with eyes already halfway trained for seeing. Unkempt ash-blond hair fell on a domed brow strongly marked in two distinct parts, with prominent veins on the temples; hung unfashionably long and thick in his neck and round the small, well-shaped ears, to mingle with the curling blond beard that covered the chin and the hollow under the lip. This lower lip came out rather strong and full under the short, slightly drooping moustache, with a smile which made a most charming harmony with the blue eyes, a little severe, but a little smiling too, their gaze half absent and half shy. The bridge of the nose was thin and finely hooked, the unbearded part of the cheeks under the cheekbones shadowed and even rather gaunt. He wore his sinewy throat uncovered and had no love for “city clothes,” which did not suit his looks, particularly not his hands, those powerful, browned and parched, rather freckled hands, one of which grasped the crook of his stick when he went into the village to town meeting.
A physician might have ascribed the veiled effort in his gaze, a certain sensitiveness at the temples, to migraine; and Jonathan did in fact suffer from headaches, though moderately, not oftener than once a month and almost without hindrance to his work. He loved his pipe, a half-length porcelain one with a lid, whose odour of pipe tobacco, peculiar to itself and far pleasanter than the stale smoke of cigar or cigarette, pervaded the atmosphere of the lower rooms. He loved too as a night-cap a good mug of Merseburg beer. On winter evenings, when the land of his fathers lay under snow, you saw him reading, preferably in a bulky family Bible, bound in pressed pigskin and closed with leather clasps; it had been printed about 1700 under the ducal licence in Brunswick, and included not only the “Geist-reichen” prefaces and marginal comments of Dr. Martin Luther but also all sorts of summaries, locos parallelos, and historical-moralizing verses by a Herr David von Schweinitz explaining each chapter. There was a legend about this volume; or rather the definite information about it was handed down, that it had been the property of that Princess of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel who married the son of Peter the Great. Afterwards they gave out that she had died, and her funeral took place, but actually she escaped to Martinique and there married a Frenchman. How often did Adrian, with his keen sense of the ridiculous, laugh with me later over this tale, which his father, lifting his head from his book, would relate with his mild, penetrating look and then, obviously unperturbed by the slightly scandalous provenance of the sacred text, return to the versified commentaries of Herr von Schweinitz or the “Wisdom of Solomon to the Tyrants.”
But alongside the religious cast his reading took another direction, which in certain times would have been characterized as wanting to “speculate the elements.” In other words, to a limited extent and with limited means, he carried on studies in natural science, biology, even perhaps in chemistry and physics, helped out occasionally by my father with material from our laboratory. But I have chosen that antiquated and not irreproachable description for such practices because a tinge of mysticism was perceptible in them, which would once have been suspect as a leaning to the black arts (translated as sorcery in a later edition). But I will add, too, that I have never misunderstood this distrust felt by a religious and spiritual-minded epoch for the rising passion to investigate the mysteries of nature. Godly fear must see in it a libertine traffic with forbidden things, despite the obvious contradiction involved in regarding the Creation, God, Nature and Life as a morally depraved field. Nature itself is too full of obscure phenomena not altogether remote from magic-equivocal moods, weird, half-hidden associations pointing to the unknown—for a disciplined piety not to see therein a rash overstepping of ordained limits.
When Adrian’s father opened certain books with illustrations in colour of exotic lepidoptera and sea creatures, we looked at them, his sons and I, Frau Leverkühn as well, over the back of his leather-cushioned chair with the ear-rests; and he pointed with his forefinger at the freaks and fascinations there displayed in all the colours of the spectrum, from dark to light, mustered and modelled with the highest technical skill: genus Papilio and genus Morpho, tropical insects which enjoyed a brief existence in fantastically exaggerated beauty, some of them regarded by the natives as evil spirits bringing malaria. The most splendid colour they displayed, a dreamlike lovely azure, was, so Jonathan instructed us, no true colour at all, but produced by fine little furrows and other surface configurations of the scales on their wings, a miniature construction resulting from artificial refraction of the light rays and exclusion of most of them so that only the purest blue light reached the eyes.
“Just think,” I can still hear Frau Leverkühn say, “so it is all a cheat?”
“Do you call the blue sky a cheat?” answered her husband looking up backwards at her. “You cannot tell me the pigment it comes from.”
I seem as I write to be standing with Frau Elsbeth, George, and Adrian behind their father’s chair, following his finger across the pictured pages. Clearwings were there depicted which had no scales on their wings, so that they seemed delicately glassy and only shot through with a net of dark veins. One such butterfly, in transparent nudity, loving the duskiness of heavy leafage, was called Hetaera esmeralda. Hetaera had on her wings only a dark spot of violet and rose; one could see nothing else of her, and when she flew she was like a petal blown by the wind. Then there was the leaf butterfly, whose wings on top are a triple chord of colour, while underneath with insane exactitude they resemble a leaf, not only in shape and veining but in the minute reproduction of small imperfections, imitation drops of water, little warts and fungus growths and more of the like. When this clever creature alights among the leaves and folds its wings, it disappears by adaptation so entirely that the hungriest enemy cannot make it out.
Not without success did Jonathan seek to communicate to us his delight in this protective imitation that went so far as to copy blemishes. “How has the creature done it?” he would ask. “How does Nature do it through the creature? For one cannot ascribe the trick to its own observation and calculation. Yes, yes, Nature knows her leaf precisely: knows not only its perfection but also its small usual blunders and blemishes; mischievously or benevolently she repeats its outward appearance in another sphere, on the under side of this her butterfly, to baffle others of her creatures. But why is it just this one that profits by the cunning? And if it is actually on purpose that when resting it looks just like a leaf, what is the advantage, looked at from the point of view of its hungry pursuers, the lizards, birds, and spiders, for which surely it is meant for food? Yet when it so wills, however keen their sight they cannot make it out. I am asking that in order that you may not ask me.”
This butterfly, then, protected itself by becoming invisible. But one only needed to look further on in the book to find others which attained the same end by being strikingly, far-reachingly visible. Not only were they exceptionally large but also coloured and patterned with unusual gorgeousness; and Father Leverkühn told us that in this apparently challenging garb they flew about in perfect security. You could not call them cheeky, there was something almost pathetic about them; for they never hid, yet never an animal—not ape or bird or lizard—turned its head to look at them. Why? Because they were revolting. And because they advertised the fact by their striking beauty and the sluggishness of their flight. Their secretions were so foul to taste and smell that if ever any creature mistakenly thought one of them would do him good he soon spat it out with every sign of disgust. But all nature knows they are inedible, so they are safe—tragically safe. We at least, behind Jonathan’s chair, asked ourselves whether this security had not something disgraceful about it, rather than being a cause for rejoicing. And what was the consequence? That other kinds of butterfly tricked themselves out in the same forbidding splendour and flew with the same heavy flight, untouchable although perfectly edible.
I was infected by Adrian’s mirth over this information; he laughed till he shook his sides, and tears squeezed out of his eyes, and I had to laugh too, right heartily. But Father Leverkühn hushed us; he wished all these matters to be regarded with reverence, the same awe, and sense, of mystery with which he looked at the unreadable writing on the shells of certain mussels, taking his great square reading-glass to help him and letting us try too. Certainly the look of these creatures, the sea-snails and salt-water mussels, was equally remarkable, at least when one looked at their pictures under Jonathan’s guidance. All these windings and vaultings, executed in splendid perfection, with a sense of form as bold as it was delicate, these rosy openings, these iridescent faience splendours—all these were the work of their own jellylike proprietors. At least on the theory that Nature makes itself, and leaving the Creator out. The conception of Him as an inspired craftsman and ambitious artist of the original pottery works is so fantastic that the temptation lies close to hand—nowhere closer—to introduce an intermediate deity, the Demiurge. Well, as I was saying, the fact that these priceless habitations were the work of the very mollusc which they sheltered was the most astonishing thing about them.
“As you grew,” said Jonathan to us, “and you can easily prove it by feeling your elbows and ribs, you formed in your insides a solid structure, a skeleton which gives your flesh and muscles stability, and which you carry round inside you—unless it be more correct to say it carries you around. Here it is just the other way: these creatures have put their solid structure outside, not as framework but as house, and that it is an outside and not an inside must be the very reason for its beauty.”
We boys, Adrian and I, looked at each other, half-smiling, half taken aback at such remarks from his father as this about the vanity of appearances.
Sometimes it was even malignant, this outward beauty: certain conical snails, charmingly asymmetric specimens bathed in a veined pale rose or white-spotted honey brown, had a notoriously poisonous sting. Altogether, according to the master of Buchel, a certain ill fame, a fantastic ambiguity, attached to this whole extraordinary field. A strange ambivalence of opinion had always betrayed itself in the very various uses to which the finest specimens were put. In the Middle Ages they had belonged to the standing inventory of the witches’ kitchen and alchemist’s vault: they were considered the proper vessels for poisons and love potions. On the other hand, and at the same time, they had served as shrines and reliquaries and even for the Eucharist. What a confrontation was there!—poison and beauty, poison and magic, even magic and ritual. If we did not think of all that ourselves, yet Jonathan’s comments gave us a vague sense of it.
As for the hieroglyphs which so puzzled him, these were on a middle-sized shell, a mussel from New Caledonia: slightly reddish-brown characters on a white ground. They looked as though they were made with a brush, and round the rim became purely ornamental strokes; but on the larger part of the curved surface their careful complexity had the most distinct look of explanatory remarks. In my recollection they showed strong resemblance to ancient Oriental writings, for instance the old Aramaic ductus. My father had actually brought archaeological works from the not ill-provided town library of Kaisersaschern to give his friend the opportunity for comparison and study. There had been, of course, no result, or only such confusion and absurdity as came to nothing. With a certain melancholy Jonathan admitted it when he showed us the riddling reproduction. “It has turned out to be impossible,” he said, “to get at the meaning of these marks. Unfortunately, my dears, such is the case. They refuse themselves to our understanding, and will, painfully enough, continue to do so. But when I say refuse, that is merely the negative of reveal—and that Nature painted these ciphers, to which we lack the key, merely for ornament on the shell of her creature, nobody can persuade me. Ornament and meaning always run alongside each other; the old writings too served for both ornament and communication. Nobody can tell me that there is nothing communicated here. That it is an inaccessible communication, to plunge into this contradiction, is also a pleasure.”
Did he think, if it were really a case of secret writing, that Nature must command a language born and organized out of her own self? For what man—invented one should she choose, to express herself in? But even as a boy I clearly understood that Nature, outside of the human race, is fundamentally illiterate—that in my eyes is precisely what makes her uncanny.
Yes, Father Leverkühn was a dreamer and speculator, and I have already said that his taste for research—if one can speak of research instead of mere dreamy contemplation—always leaned in a certain direction—namely, the mystical or an intuitive half-mystical, into which, as it seems to me, human thinking in pursuit of Nature is almost of necessity led. But the enterprise of experimenting on Nature, of teasing her into manifestations, “tempting” her, in the sense of laying bare her workings by experiment; that all this had quite close relations with witchcraft, yes, belonged in that realm and was itself a work of the “Tempter,” such was the conviction of earlier epochs. It was a decent conviction, if you were to ask me. I should like to know with what eyes one would have looked on the man from Wittenberg who, as we heard from Jonathan, a hundred and some years before had invented the experiment of visible music, which we were sometimes permitted to see. To the small amount of physical apparatus which Adrian’s father had at his command belonged a round glass plate, resting only on a peg in the centre and revolving freely. On this glass plate the miracle took place. It was strewn with fine sand, and Jonathan, by means of an old cello bow which he drew up and down the edge from top to bottom made it vibrate, and according to its motion the excited sand grouped and arranged itself in astonishingly precise and varied figures and arabesques. This visible acoustic, wherein the simple and the mysterious, law and miracle, so charmingly mingled, pleased us lads exceedingly; we often asked to see it, and not least to give the experimenter pleasure.
A similar pleasure he found in ice crystals; and on winter days when the little peasant windows of the farmhouse were frosted, he would be absorbed in their structure for half an hour, looking at them both with the naked eye and with his magnifying glass. I should like to say that all that would have been good and belonging to the regular order of things if only the phenomena had kept to a symmetrical pattern, as they ought, strictly regular and mathematical. But that they did not. Impudently, deceptively, they imitated the vegetable kingdom: most prettily of all, fern fronds, grasses, the calyxes and corollas of flowers. To the utmost of their icy ability they dabbled in the organic; and that Jonathan could never get over, nor cease his more or less disapproving but also admiring shakes of the head. Did, he inquired, these phantasmagorias prefigure the forms of the vegetable world, or did they imitate them? Neither one nor the other, he answered himself; they were parallel phenomena. Creatively dreaming Nature dreamed here and there the. same dream: if there could be a thought of imitation, then surely it was reciprocal. Should one put down the actual children of the field as the pattern because they possessed organic actuality, while the snow crystals were mere show? But their appearance was the result of no smaller complexity of the action of matter than was that of the plants. If I understood my host aright, then what occupied him was the essential unity of animate and so-called inanimate nature, it was the thought that we sin against the latter when we draw too hard and fast a line between the two fields, since in reality it is pervious and there is no elementary capacity which is reserved entirely to the living creature and which the biologist could not also study on an inanimate subject.
We learned how bewilderingly the two kingdoms mimic each other, when Father Leverkühn showed us the “devouring drop,” more than once giving it its meal before our eyes. A drop of any kind, paraffin, volatile oil—I no longer feel sure what it was, it may have been chloroform—a drop, I say, is not animal, not even of the most primitive type, not even an amoeba; one does not suppose that it feels appetite, seizes nourishment, keeps what suits it, rejects what does not. But just this was what our drop did. It hung by itself in a glass of water, wherein Jonathan had sub merged it, probably with a dropper. What he did was as follows: he took a tiny glass stick, just a glass thread, which he had coated with shellac, between the prongs of a little pair of pincers and brought it close to the drop. That was all he did; the rest the drop did itself. It threw up on its surface a little protuberance, something like a mount of conception, through which it took the stick into itself, lengthwise. At the same time it got longer, became pear-shaped in order to get its prey all in, so that it should not stick out beyond, and began, I give you my word for it, gradually growing round again, first by taking on an egg-shape, to eat off the shellac and distribute it in its body. This done, and returned to its round shape, it moved the stick, licked clean, crosswise to its own surface and ejected it into the water.
I cannot say that I enjoyed seeing this, but I confess that I was fascinated, and Adrian probably was too, though he was always sorely tempted to laugh at such displays and suppressed his laughter only out of respect for his father’s gravity. The devouring drop might conceivably strike one as funny. But no one, certainly not myself, could have laughed at certain other phenomena, “natural,” yet incredible and uncanny, displayed by Father Lever-kiihn. He had succeeded in making a most singular culture; I shall never forget the sight. The vessel of crystallization was three-quarters full of slightly muddy water—that is, dilute water-glass—and from the sandy bottom there strove upwards a grotesque little landscape of variously coloured growths: a confused vegetation of blue, green, and brown shoots which reminded one of algaj, mushrooms, attached polyps, also moss, then mussels, fruit pods, little trees or twigs from trees, here and there of limbs. It was the most remarkable sight I ever saw, and remarkable not so much for its appearance, strange and amazing though that was, as on account of its profoundly melancholy nature. For when Father Leverkühn asked us what we thought of it and we timidly answered him that they might be plants: “No,” he replied, “they are not, they only act that way. But do not think the less of them. Precisely because they do, because they try to as hard as they can, they are worthy of all respect.”
It turned out that these growths were entirely unorganic in their origin; they existed by virtue of chemicals from the apothecary’s shop, the “Blessed Messengers.” Before pouring the water-glass, Jonathan had sprinkled the sand at the bottom with various crystals; if I mistake not potassium chromate and sulphate of copper. From this sowing, as the result of a physical process called “osmotic pressure,” there sprang the pathetic crop for which their producer at once and urgently claimed our sympathy. He showed us that these pathetic imitations of life were light-seeking, heliotropic, as science calls it. He exposed the aquarium to the sunlight, shading three sides against it, and behold, toward that one pane through which the light fell, thither straightway slanted the whole equivocal kith and kin: mushrooms, phallic polyp-stalks, little trees, algae, half-formed limbs. Indeed, they so yearned after warmth and joy that they actually clung to the pane and stuck fast there.
“And even so they are dead,” said Jonathan, and tears came in his eyes, while Adrian, as of course I saw, was shaken with suppressed laughter.
For my part, I must leave it to the reader’s judgment whether that sort of thing is matter for laughter or tears. But one thing I will say: such weirdnesses are exclusively Nature’s own affair, and particularly of nature arrogantly tempted by man. In the high-minded realms of the humaniora one is safe from such impish phenomena.