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A toe of the elephant

Intrepid readers of this blog may recall that some years back, I wrote a review of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.  I was very impressed.  If I may quote myself:

I ended up thinking this was one of the most worthwhile novels I’d ever read … and perhaps the most intellectually challenging, to boot.

I just recently finished my second Mann — Doctor Faustus.  (I mainly used the Lowe-Porter English translation, but often consulted the German original.  See my blog post “Dual language e-reader” for details on how I do this.)  This work likewise made a deep impression on me.  Most memorably, since I’m a classical musician, I was very struck with Mann’s knowledge in this area … in some respects perhaps exceeding even mine.  🙂  (Since Adrian Leverkühn, Mann’s protagonist, is a composer, there is ample opportunity for musical discussions.)  I actually can’t think of any other novel which is so intelligent in its treatment of classical music.  In my reading notes, I jotted down a list of music-related passages which I intend to follow up on …

And then (as in The Magic Mountain) there is the parade of philosophical ideas.  And various literary references.  Since I feel overwhelmed when I think of even summarizing all of this, I will discourse upon only one toe of the elephant at hand.  I hope you will not feel too much like one of the famous blind men in the tale … but you do know how you can go about remedying that situation.  🙂

The hero-composer Leverkühn is, we see, at one point occupied by the project of setting, for marionette theatre (!), a selection of stories from Gesta Romanorum.  (In one of the novel’s correspondences with reality, the orchestration for this piece matches that of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.) Of course you can get details in the Wikipedia article on Gesta, but to summarize, this work (hitherto unknown to me) was a collection of stories, in Latin, compiled in about the year 1300.  (The title, Deeds of the Romans, is misleading, since only some of the tales originate in classical Rome.)  Surmised to have been put together by a clergy-person as a manual for preachers, it is ostensibly produced for moral instruction.    Gesta was a best-seller in its time.  Very shortly, below, you will get an idea of why …

Mann includes in Chapter 31 of Doctor Faustus, Tale XXVIII of the Gesta, which I will reproduce below as he renders it (in my Lowe-Porter translation).  This story especially caught my attention, since I am currently in a reading (out loud) group that is wending its way through Giovanni Boccaccio’s own collection of tales, The Decameron (ca. 1353).  As Mann suggests, Boccaccio very likely found inspiration for some of his often-raunchy stories in the piously-framed Gesta.

If you intend to read the following narrative aloud, please remove youngsters, and those with delicate sensibilities, from the room before proceeding further!  You have been warned …

There is for instance the fundamentally unmoral fable, anticipating the Decameron, “of the godless guile of old women,” wherein an accomplice of guilty passion, under a mask of sanctity succeeds in persuading a noble and even exceptionally decent and honourable wife, while her confiding husband is gone on a journey, that she is sinfully minded to a youth who is consumed with desire for her. The witch makes her little bitch [dog!] fast for two days, and then gives it bread spread with mustard to eat, which causes the little animal to shed copious tears. Then she takes it to the virtuous lady, who receives her respectfully, since everybody supposes she is a saint. But when the lady looks at the weeping little bitch and asks in surprise what causes its tears, the old woman behaves as though she would rather not answer. When pressed to speak, she confesses that this little dog is actually her own all-too-chaste daughter, who by reason of the unbending denial of her favour to a young man on fire for her had driven him to his death; and now, in punishment therefor, she has been turned into this shape and of course constantly weeps tears of despair over her doggish estate. Telling these deliberate lies, the procuress weeps too, but the lady is horrified at the thought of the similarity of her own case with that of the little dog and tells the old woman of the youth who suffers for her. Thereupon the woman puts it seriously before her what an irretrievable pity it would be if she too were to be turned into a little dog; and is then commissioned to fetch the groaning suitor that in God’s name he may cool his lust, so that the two at the instance of a godless trick celebrate the sweetest adultery.

Oh yes, one more tiny detail.  Mann just happens to omit the Moralizacio, the moral lesson that the Gesta places after the story proper (or shall we say the story improper?).  Evidently this is supposed to make everything just peachy …

My beloved, the knight [the husband] is Christ; the wife is the soul, to which God gave free will. It is invited to the feast of carnal pleasures, where a youth — that is, the vanity or the world — becomes enamoured of it. The old woman is the devil ; the dog, the hope of a long life, and the presumptuous belief of God’s clemency, which lead us to deceive and soothe the soul.

Of course Boccaccio spins his spicy Decameron tales with no such moral lessons to come in as the Deus Ex Machina at the end.  Which is why the Church tried to ban the work.  (It was too popular though, so a “corrected”, i.e. expurgated edition was created instead, which the Church tried to fob off on the populace at large.)

I now have learned that the Gesta Romanorum tales have echoed down through the centuries, not only influencing Boccaccio, but being re-presented in works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, to name only the two most world-class names.  Thanks to Herr Mann for this engrossing, thought-provoking novel, which among so much else, yields such rich pathways into the literary past!

 

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