«Introduction: Thomas Mann and Gnosticism in the Cultural Matrix of His Time Kirsten J. Grimstad The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed a ...»
Introduction: Thomas Mann and Gnosticism in the
Cultural Matrix of His Time
Kirsten J. Grimstad
The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed a far-reaching revival of interest in
the ancient and radical philosophy of religion known as Gnosticism. In 1945 a cache of original
Gnostic texts buried in the desert at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt around 400 C.E. came to light
by accident when a camel-driver struck upon a large clay jar while digging for fertilizer. The jar
contained papyrus codices that are now recognized as the most comprehensive collection of Gnostic writing ever retrieved, comprising fifty-two tractates bound in twelve books. The vigorous new wave of discussion triggered by the discovery has advanced insight into the role of this diverse school of thought -- once marginalized as heresy -- in shaping primitive Christianity as it unfolded in a teeming matrix of Eastern and Western traditions.
To date, this revival has reached far beyond the domains of academic study and into literature and popular culture. Gnostic motifs and sensibility began cropping up in the fiction of contemporary authors Walker Percy, Flannery O’Conner, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon, as well as in science fiction novels by Philip K. Dick, to name just a few well known examples noted in critical studies.1 In addition, the emergence of contemporary Gnostic societies and churches -- now gaining adherents through homepages on the World Wide Web -- bears further witness to the continuing echoes and remarkable resilience of this ancient school in the twenty-first century.2 The post-war renewal of interest in Gnosticism rests on the foundation of an earlier revival that began in the late nineteenth century and built to a pitch during the decades encompassing the First World War and its aftermath. The first original Gnostic texts began to surface and engage debate at this critical time when the canons of the Western tradition, its faith in reason and progress, were coming under severe attack and increasingly regarded as sterile and exhausted. Christianity too was widely denounced as a bankrupt institution that had supplanted the vigorous true faith of the primitive church with pablum for the masses. In this context of a Chapter One Grimstad 2 waning tradition, figures on the cultural vanguard began looking for alternative roots in the rejected chapters of history, in those marginalized domains the Western tradition had attempted to suppress and erase. The rediscovery of original Gnostic texts fed this hunger. Pioneering intellectual leaders such as C. G. Jung, Hans Jonas, and Gershom Scholem rehabilitated the once- despised heretics and promoted them to honored precursors of analytical psychology, existentialism, and revolutionary messianism. Ripples from the recovery of a Gnostic imagination and sensibility also extended into the writing of Melville, Yeats, Pound, Artaud, Kafka, Hesse, Nabokov, Lawrence Durrell, and others, and into popular esoteric schools as well.3 The first wave of the modern revival of Gnosticism emerged from this dynamic matrix.
The provocative reappearance of an ancient and supposedly long-dead religious philosophy on the cultural terrain of the secularized modern age invites an accounting, which this study attempts to provide. The first four chapters explore the revival of a Gnostic sensibility across the broad landscape of European literature and thought during the decades leading up to and including the explosive beginning of the twentieth century. The later chapters tackle this subject in microcosm by probing buried layers of Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus, in which the world-rejecting aesthetic ideology of the composer Adrian Leverkühn unfolds in tandem with the political ideology of the Nazi regime. Approaching Doktor Faustus through the revival of Gnosticism exposes the fault lines in the bedrock of the aesthetic movement that emerged in the context of renewed scholarly and popular interest in ancient Gnostic religion during the generations preceding the historical crises of our era. This approach also exposes a surprising and previously unrecognized dimension of Mann’s novel, namely, a covert Gnostic redemption drama that lies encrypted within the main story of the protagonist’s downfall and damnation. Recognizing this hidden story solves some of the novel’s central puzzles, as later chapters of this study will detail through close reading of Mann’s text.
Throughout this study I use the term "Gnostic" to refer to a religious sensibility dating from the Greco-Roman era and noted for its extremism. Gnosticism features a radically
spirit is itself divine, though lost in an alien and hostile world ruled by an evil deity. The ancient Gnostics believed that the created world came about through a divine catastrophe. Yet salvation from the emptiness of the human condition could be achieved through the numinous experience they called gnosis, that is, a moment flooded with remembrance of the divine spirit within and its true home in the heavenly fullness known as the pleroma that lies beyond the world. Coupled with the utmost pessimism of Gnostic writing we find radiant hymns of ecstasy. Gnostics espoused a radical dream of ultimate liberation; they made no compromises with the status quo.
This dualistic and world-rejecting but also transcendent and subversive world view took root among the early Christian heretical sects that blossomed during the second through fifth centuries and among eastern Mandaean and Manichaean variants that continued much longer. The Mandaeans may have originated in Judea as early as the first century as a Jewish baptismal sect that eventually fled from persecution to southern Iraq, where it survives to this day in a community of about 15,000 (Rudolph 363-64). Manichaeism originated in third-century Mesopotamia, among the followers of Mani, in whose teachings the dualism of the Gnostic worldview found its fullest expression and broadest geographic reach. The Manichaeans migrated to Asia, where they prospered at sites along the Silk Road far into Chinese Turkestan until the thirteenth century. Yet, as some have argued, Gnosticism remains far more than an historical phenomenon and a chapter in the history of religions. It is also a feature of consciousness and a response to the world that turns up repeatedly in religious imagination and in philosophy and culture as the kaleidoscope of history turns.
As of this writing, a body of critical studies investigating Gnostic themes in literature has accumulated to include more than 130 titles dating back to 1972, with four to seven new studies added each year. For the most part, these studies investigate Gnostic thematics and sensibility in the works of individual writers, substantiated by evidence of their contact with this or that Gnostic source. Many of these studies cluster around the period of the first wave revival of Gnosticism. Is there an overarching perspective that might link these individual examples to some
European Aestheticism, also widely known in its day as the religion of art, may be seen as a form of modern Gnosticism in which the ancient Gnostic rejection of the world and longing to escape into otherworldly redemption returned in modern secular guise.
The so-called religion of art in effect rekindled a culturally subversive sectarian structure of thought that left its watermark on diverse literary texts of the period. Beginning with Baudelaire and continuing through the fin de siècle, we find increasing examples of an extremist revolt against modernity itself as a ruined work that parallels on the historical plane the Gnostic revolt against the cosmos. Moreover, the ancient Gnostic salvation through gnosis reappears in the l'art pour l'art ideal of an autonomous aesthetic utopia of absolute art as a medium for absolute reality and an escape from the social world and the perceived horrors of modernity. This movement culminated in modernist abstraction. In his doctoral thesis Abstraktion und Einfühlung (Abstraction and Empathy, 1908), art critic Wilhelm Worringer described abstraction as a lifenegating, inorganic, crystalline form of beauty purified of all existential contingency and rendered as pure form.4 Worringer noted that abstraction follows from a feeling of being lost and overwhelmed in a hostile universe in which all things are relative (17-21). These counterbalancing pessimistic and optimistic extremes comprise what I suggest is the Gnostic schema in European Aestheticism. This way of cognition governs the imagination and sensibility of many of the movement’s leading figures, from which may be discerned a striking structural homology between the ancient religious heresy and the modern secular religion of art.
Mann’s literary persona ripened in this milieu. It left a deep imprint on his early work in the struggle between art and life, mind and nature that unfolds as the thematic centerpiece of his novella Tonio Kröger (1903) and as the thread linking the early stories with the novel Buddenbrooks (1901) and Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice, 1913). Mann's continuing preoccupation with the contest between these binary opposites, which forms the baseline of European literature of the fin de siècle, places his early work in the continuum of Aestheticism reaching back to Baudelaire. In Leverkühn, Mann critically revisits this first stage of his
condemns implicitly his own early world-rejecting aestheticism along with the coldness of modern art that follows from its complete detachment from the social world and indifference to the ideological forces propelling Germany into what Mann suggested was a devil’s pact with Hitler. And yet, in the voice of the idolizing narrator, the author’s suffering affinity for the artist’s elevation and remoteness from life sounds distinctly throughout.
The point of departure for considering a Gnostic subtext in Doktor Faustus is that the first figure associated with the name Faust was none other than the legendary Simon Magus. The church fathers reviled this colorful contemporary of the apostles Peter and Paul as the first Gnostic and the father of all heresy. The secondary literature on the Faust myth dutifully credits Simon Magus as Faust’s first forerunner. And studies by Richardson, Petsch, Kahler, Quispel, Hanratty, Brown, and Nuttall have also touched upon the implications of Faust’s Gnostic ancestry for the larger meaning of this legend that resonates so powerfully with the crisis of Western individualism. Most critical studies, however, have focused instead on the more immediate and well known source: the shadowy sixteenth-century necromancer who called himself "Faustus junior" and "magus secundus" and whose exploits inspired the popular legend recorded in the Faust chapbook published by Spies in 1587.
We know that Thomas Mann was well aware of the deep ancestry of the Faust figure. In his lecture "On Goethe’s Faust," delivered at Princeton in 1938, Mann identified Simon Magus as the original prototype for the historical Faust. According to Mann, this latter-day figure deliberately shaped the episodes of his life to recapitulate the mythical pattern established by his role model Simon Magus. This accounts, in Mann’s view, for the otherwise puzzling fact that the third-rate charlatan of the sixteenth century managed to leverage himself to mythic stature.5 Yet, despite Mann’s direct reference to this source for his novel that was in gestation at the time of this lecture, the broad implications of Faust’s Gnostic ancestry for the meaning of Mann’s novel have remained unexamined.
We know that Mann was also at least minimally aware of the revival of Gnosticism that
to circulate, because he incorporated one of them in the prelude to the Joseph tetralogy. The narrator introduces the myth, sometimes called Roman der Seele (Romance of the Soul), at the final station in the mythical descent into the well of the past with which the tetralogy begins. He frames the myth as a tradition of human thought deriving from earliest time and based on humanity’s truest self-understanding. This tradition subsequently penetrated the prophecies and doctrines of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Manichaeism, Gnosticism, and Hellenism (GW 4: 39).
The story tells of the primordial human soul, a being of pure light called the Urmensch or Primal Man, who emanated from the divine source of all being before the beginning of the world.
He was God’s first emissary in the war against the evil that had invaded the new creation. But the Primal Man forgets his mission by instead becoming enamored with his own image reflected in lower nature. He goes down to it and falls into bondage and forgetfulness of his own heavenly home. Through this mingling of the primordial soul with formless materiality, our creaturely world of forms, suffering, and death first comes into being in order to gratify the soul’s yearning for union with matter. But God sends a second messenger, the Primal Man’s heavenly twin, to awaken the slumbering soul to its plight by kindling a homesick longing for its ancient freedom and lost home in divinity. Only when the soul wings its way homeward will divinity again be restored to its original wholeness, the created world of forms will end, and matter will regain its original formless condition.6 Its strategic placement in the structure of the prelude implies that this Gnostic account of creation contains the ultimate answer to the search for our origin and end, and therefore its significance can hardly be overstated. At a later point in this chapter, we will explore how the Roman der Seele functions as a touchstone for the entire work, in which Thomas Mann engages and humorously refutes the anti-cosmic message of Gnosticism. But first, we must set the stage with a brief excursion into early Gnosticism and its rediscovery in the nineteenth century in order to establish the context in which Mann and others of his era imported Gnostic myth into their