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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Today in History: Happy Birthday Thomas Mann

The great German writer Thomas Mann was born on June 6, 1875. He wrote several fascinating and important works including Mario and the Magician, Tonio Kroger, Death in Venice, and Doctor Faustus. His career spanned the rise and fall of Fascism in Europe, and he wrote about the artistic, intellectual and political development of his country and continent over the course of those years.

It's his reworking of the Faust myth that I found most interesting. It's an intricate meditation on art, music, and philosophy. Standing in for the legendary deal-maker is a modern composer named Adrian Leverkühn. His pact with the devil is more imagined than real, but it is also a metaphor for the spiritual and intelectual degradation of Mann's homeland as well as the compromises asked of those who pursue artistic success.

In many ways, the Faust myth strikes me as the defining metaphor for Industrial Western society. Humanity achieved many great things over the past century, but it also suffered many self-inflicted wounds. The advances in art, medicine, and technology came at the social cost of tremendous human exploitation and environmental degradation. This Faustian bargain also occured at the individual level as the consumers of the West turned their backs on intelectual curiosity and political involvement in return for physical comforts. As we've grown fat on material excesses, we've seen our souls wither and atrophy.

We're now reaching a point where we'll have to reckon with that past. The forces of new economy are balancing out the standards of living across the globe, and those on top have the furthest to fall. The environment we've taken for granted is straddling a line we don't dare cross. The joy ride is ending and the devil will want to have his due. Like Adrian Leverkühn we need to find a path toward spiritual redemption and create something positive out of our many sins.
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