How Not To Make A Deal With The Devil : A Critical Look At Chapter XXV Of Mann's Doctor Faustus
Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus is punctuated exactly in the middle by the transcript of an allged dialogue between the composer Adrian Leverkühn and the Devil. Therein, Lucifer purports to set out the terms of the agreement into which Leverkühn apparently enters — twenty-four years of unequalled genius in exchange for his warmth, his ability to love, his soul. Zeitblom, the narrator, claims that the "dialogue" cannot possibly be genuine, but offers no evidence apart from his horror at what would be implied if events had transpired as they are described. Nevertheless, there is sufficient evidence in the text of Doctor Faustus to conclude that the dialogue between Adrian and Lucifer is probably meant to be treated allegorically, rather than as literal truth. First, the position of the "dialogue" in the story's timeline comes too late for it to represent the conclusion of the agreement. Second, on the basis of textual evidence, specifically the similarity in speech and manner between Lucifer and Kumpf, it is reasonable to conclude that what Leverkühn represents as the Devil is rather a character fabricated from his own memories. Finally, the Devil's evasion of Leverkühn's questions about Hell, and about every other fact which Leverkühn did not already know, especially in the context of the Faust legend, strongly suggest that no actual contact between Leverkühn and Lucifer occurred.
Leverkühn's alleged dialogue with Lucifer comes rather too late in the timeline of Doctor Faustus to represent the conclusion of an agreement between the two. Leverkühn's collapse comes in May 1930 — exactly twenty-four years after his second meeting with Esmeralda and his resutant contraction of syphilis. Leverkühn's account of his meeting with the Devil comes at least several months later, after he twice attempted and twice failed to obtain treatment for his infection. It is at this time that the Devil explicates the restrictions which would be placed on Leverkühn as his part of the bargain, and chiefest among these is that he must renounce love, warmth, and essentially his humanity. But Leverkühn's rejection of human contact in general had already begun before his meeting with the Devil; indeed, his withdrawal began immediately after his encounter with Esmeralda. As Zeitblom notes upon rejoining Adrian in Leipzig, "If he had not become a different person during the year of our separation, certainly he had become even more himself." (169) Leverkühn had never been particularly warm, even among friends; the fact that his coldness intensified noticeably after his encounter with Esmeralda and before his meeting with the Devil suggests that his withdrawal from society began as a result of his infection. A deal, of course, is a deal, even when one is dealing with the Devil, and so this coldness could not have been imposed after the fact, at the time of Leverkühn's alleged dialogue; instead, it must have been part of the agreement all along. The same argument, of course, applies with respect to the duration of Leverkühn's productivity; The Devil notes that "Time is what we sell — twenty-four years, shall we say — is that a requisite sum?" (245); but the duration of the agreement must already have been set, because Leverkühn enjoys his mad time for twenty-four years from the time at he contracted syphilis, rather than the time at which he claims to have spoken with the Devil. This suggests that Leverkühn's "dialogue" with the Devil is merely an attempt to explain what he feels has happened, rather than a factual transcript of an actual meeting.
Second, textual clues suggest that Leverkühn's dialogue with the Devil has its roots in Leverkühn's memories of Kumpf, rather than an actual conversation. The similarity in the dialogue of the Devil's manner of speech, and indeed of Adrian's own speech, to that of Professof Kumpf is simply too strong to be ignored — both parties speak in Kumpf's good old-fashioned German, even going so far as to duplicate exactly many of his peculiar turns of phrase: Leverkühn utilizes the expressions "Hell's horrid hole" (243) and "Si Diabolus non esset mendax et homicida" (252); the Devil borrows figures of speech far more liberally, using Kumpf's favored interjections "Zounds!" (251), "'Sblood!" (259), and "God's bodykins!" (252), as well as the self-referential euphemism "Old Clootie" (259). A further clue that this dialogue has no grounding in reality comes from Leverkühn himself, who offers a perfectly plausible explanation at the outset of the dialogue: "It is the more probable that I am taking some malady and in my dazed state transfer unto your person the chill of fever against which I have wrapped myself, and behold you merely but to see its source in you." (241) Absent evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to suppose that the Devil's appearance represents anything more than a fevered hallucination drawing heavily on Leverkühn's memories of Kumpf.
Finally, the Devil's failure to provide Leverkühn with any information he could not already have known indicates that their entire meeting could have been imagined. When Leverkühn asks Lucifer about Hell, he recieves a mere evasion in response: "Actually, one cannot speak of [Hell] in any manner whatsoever… That is the secret delight and security of hell, that it cannot be denounced… cannot appear in a newspaper, be made public, be brought to critical notice by words." (260) What "facts" Lucifer does offer correspond exactly with what one would imagine to be Adrian's preconceptions of Hell, given his views on sin. It is interesting to note that the first doctor whom he visited was named Erasmi, echoing the name of the Reformation-era Dutch theologian Erasmus. While Erasmus supported the Reformation, he took the Catholic Church's position that, although Man could not avoid sin, he could always obtain absolution and thus salvation through the Sacrament of Reconciliation . This stands in direct contrast to Leverkühn's assertion that "Contritio without hope and as utter unbelief in the possibility of grace and forgiveness, as the sinner's deep-rooted conviction that he has behaved too grossly and that even unending goodness will not suffice to forgive his sins — only that is the true remorse." (262) The contrition so described is prideful remorse, one unadmitting of the possibility of salvation — that of Cain, that of Marlowe's Faustus, and ultimately that of Leverkühn himself. Given Leverkühn's conceited conception of sin, it is surely no coincidence that, when pressed for information, the Devil explains to him that "precisely minds of your sort constitute the population of hell… your theological type, such an arrant desperado who speculates upon speculation, because speculation is in his blood from the father's side — if he were not the Devil's, why 'twould surely be old craft." (263) That the explanations offered by Lucifer when his evasions fail correspond so neatly to Leverkühn's preconceptions is strong evidence that the Lucifer here portrayed comes entirely from within Adrian's mind.
In conclusion, the evidence that Adrian's dialogue with the Devil does not correspond with the reality of Leverkühn's life is threefold. The matter of timing is important — the Devil presumably could not have imposed the condition that Adrian be without love after an agreement had been struck, nor, if the pact were sealed at the time of the alleged dialogue, could he have retroactively started Leverkühn's twenty-four year term of mad, devilish, genius time a few months previously; the natural conclusion is that no agreement was reached at the time of the dialogue, and so that the dialogue itself is not grounded in reality. Additionally, the similarity of the Devil's and Adrian's speech to that of Kumpf, as well as Adrian's explicit suggestion that the Devil's appearance was a mere feverish hallucination, point to this conclusion. Finally, the Devil fails to provide any evidence in the form of new information that their conversation actually happened — on the contrary, what little information the Devil provides corresponds exactly with Adrian's preconceptions about Hell. This being the case, there is no compelling reason to believe that the dialogue described by Leverkühn in his letter to Zeitblom actually occurred.
(1) All quotations, except as otherwise noted, from Mann, Thomas. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn As Told By a Friend. Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1997.
(2) Fieser, James, ed. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2001). Available at http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/erasmus.htm. Accessed 3/5/2002.