The “Sirens” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus are steeped in music. “Sirens” centres on an impromptu concert in the bar of the Ormond Hotel and Doktor Faustus describes the life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn as told by his friend Serenus Zeitblom. In both novels music functions not merely as theme and content, but as an important narrative device and shaping force. Both novels abound in passages where the narrative is musicalised, and in each language comes as close to becoming music as language possibly can.
The radically experimental style of Joyce’s Ulysses and the more conventional style of Mann’s Doktor Faustus are so different as to make a comparison surprising. Unlike Joyce, Mann's experimentation with the novel remains within sanctioned boundaries, nevertheless beneath this superficial difference lie startling and significant similarities. As David Kiremidjian puts it, “[b]oth books are significant not only as expressions of the crisis of modern civilization, but also as definite landmarks in the history of the novel as a literary genre. Both Joyce and Mann were aware that the novel – and art in general – was in a position as questionable as the culture it was to reflect” (A Study of Modern Parody 180).
The crisis of the novel, the reliance of modern art on the past, the difficult position of the artist and consequently of art itself, are motifs in Joyce’s work as well as in that of Mann. However, some critics are less convinced of the modernism of Doktor Faustus. The main reason for this is Mann’s language, which, in spite of it’s richness, inventiveness and elegance, won’t be drawn into the self-doubt or playful experimentation of Joyce (cf. Vaget, 190). “For Mann, words are still denotative and his art is still traditional, in that language still describes an object distinct from it” (Kiremidjian, A Study of Modern Parody 187). By contrast, Joyce makes words into objects treating them as “self-sufficient entities not dependent upon ‘objects’ in the real world to complete their practical existence” (ibid.). These differences are especially evident in the musical techniques, derived from entirely different conceptions of language, found in Ulysses and Doktor Faustus.
Mann's foregrounding of music is more theoretical and historical than Joyce's, and he relies more heavily on outside sources to suggest the musical intimacy he was looking for, perhaps as compensation for his lack of musical competence. Joyce, on the other hand, adheres to a more intuitive approach; he draws principally on his knowledge of music and cares less about technical accuracy. Unlike Joyce, who constantly disrupts the surface and the structure of the fabula, Mann is unwilling, or unable, to develop the revolutionary new form that his topic, the loss of artistic originality and creativity, seems to invite. Instead, he pushes the limits of the texture of Doktor Faustus as far as possible, but Adrian Leverkühn carries out the radical artistic reforms. If Ulysses is a novel to end all novels, Leverkühn’s work is music to end all music, but at the same time it is the beginning of something new, as are the works of Joyce.
Both Joyce and Mann attempt to imitate musical structures, techniques, and effects. Where Mann emulates musical devices in a metaphorical way, Joyce's efforts are more literal, more extreme, and more disruptive. An example of this difference can be found in the matter of counterpoint. Joyce suggests synchronous sounds when several independent ‘voices’ speak concurrently, for instance in the famous response to Simon Dedalus’s performance of “M’appari”. Here, the shouts and applause from the audience happen simultaneously and climaxes with the word “enclap”, a contraction of “clap” and “encore” (11.758). This is typical of Joyce’s disruptive, modernist style. Mann's approach is broader and more metaphorical. One of the techniques he uses to create a polyphonic effect relies on his use of a narrator. This allows for an interaction between at least two senses of time, that of Leverkühn, erzählte Zeit, and that of Zeitblom, Erzählzeit. Adrian’s Lutheran way of speaking German also suggests the time of Martin Luther, allowing an argument for the existence of a third, simultaneous, temporality. Thus Mann's more indirect imitation of counterpoint lacks the linguistic playfulness of Joyce’s more radical attempt at the same device.
In Ulysses the motif for Boylan, the ubiquitous “Jingle jingle jaunted jingling” pops up unexpectedly throughout the “Sirens” episode (e.g. 11.15). Sometimes it is an obvious indication of Boylan’s advances toward Molly. Often, however, it appears unexpectedly, in the middle of a sentence, confusing the reader. Such demands on the reader are another feature of modernism. In Doktor Faustus, the uses of leitmotif blend into the narrative and are, therefore, less disruptive and less demanding than Joyce's contrapuntal technique in “Sirens”. For instance, the motif of the butterfly, one of the most important themes in Doktor Faustus, appears inconspicuously in descriptions and conversations, indicating Mann’s adherence to the linguistic conventions of logic, coherence, and the rules of syntax, as opposed to the unregulated flow of psychic processes in Joyce.
Of course, this contrast could be explained by the personal preferences of the authors, but it might also have something to do with the different modernist commitments of each. The modernism of Ulysses is indisputable. The book's abrupt break with tradition, its introversion, scepticism, experimentalism, technical display, and ironic self-consciousness are all features of modernist aesthetics. In spite of his less radical style, Thomas Mann is undoubtedly a modernist writer as well, especially in his use of irony. Malcolm Bradbury and John Fletcher argue that Mann’s irony is the most complete to be found in the period. Since the historical setting for his works is often contemporaneous with his own, Mann's characters become “part of the complex struggle of aestheticism in the late bourgeois culture” ("The Introverted Novel" 407).
Joyce and Mann also perceive language differently. In Doktor Faustus the musical allusions are straightforward. When referring to a musical instrument, a piece of music, or a musical term the words denote that object and nothing else. In “Sirens”, on the other hand, many of the musical references participate in an intricate play of homonyms and a considerable number of the references to arias, musical terms, songs, or musical instruments carry a double meaning. However, there are also striking correspondences: both authors employ leitmotifs and imitate counterpoint and, while the results are formally and stylistically different, both “Sirens” and Doktor Faustus are marked by a complex web of references.
It is impossible to identify any element in Doktor Faustus that does not contribute to its overall design, suggesting that Mann might have composed the novel along the lines of the strict arrangement of dodecaphonic music. The same holds true for Ulysses, the density of which resembles a formally closed musical composition. According to John Neubauer: “Both Joyce and Mann have spun a web [
] of quotations, paraphrases, and allusions, challenging the reader (who must be a competent one) to decipher them and to savour their multiple interconnections” (Neubauer, 203).
Both authors seem to want their texts to become music rather than be about music. Joyce called his “Sirens” a fugue and Mann called his works scores or constructive music. In Die Entstehung Mann writes: "Ich fühle es wohl, daß mein Buch selbst das werde sein müssen, wovon es handelt, nämlich konstruktive Musik" (Gesammelte Werke XI 187). In Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce he records that during the intermission of a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre Joyce asked his companion, “Don’t you find the musical effects of my Sirens better than Wagner’s?” When his friend said he did not, Joyce was so insulted that he “turned on his heel and did not show up for the rest of the opera” (473). Similarly, Samuel Beckett, in “Dante
Bruno. Vico... Joyce” says that Joyce’s writing “is not about something; it is that something itself” (14).
The musicalisation of literature is both more common and more conspicuous in modernism than before. Virginia Woolf, for instance, declared that she always thought of her books as music before she wrote them (cf. Woolf, 426), and in his study André Gide and the Crisis of Modern Thought, Klaus Mann records a similar statement made by Gide with regard to his novel Les Faux-monnayeurs: “What I would like to produce [
] is something in the line of the Kunst der Fuge. I don’t see why it should be impossible to accomplish in literature what has been possible in the sphere of music” (181). Similarly, Hermann Broch compared the four chapters of his novel Der Tod des Vergil to the movements of a string quartet, and Aldous Huxley explained his desire that Point Counter Point become music as follows: “The Musicalisation of fiction. A theme is stated, then developed [
] In sets of variations the process is carried a step further. Get this in a novel. How?” (Huxley, 301).
Werner Wolf's conception of intermediality is helpful in explaining the modernist enthusisam for musicalizing fiction in general and the modernist aesthetics of Joyce and Mann in particular. According to Wolf intermedial works, like Ulysses and Doktor Faustus, turn away from the “beaten paths” of mimesis and pay more attention to the materiality of language. Considering the modernist abandonment of traditional ways of storytelling and the shift of emphasis from what Wolf terms a “referential focus on the outer world to a preoccupation with the inner world of the psyche and a self-reflexive exploration of the artistic medium, its possibilities and limits” (Musicalisation of Fiction 125), it is hardly surprising that in the end, Modernist musicalisations of literature are more than musical description for description's sake, and the attempts of Joyce and Mann to musicalize their fiction can be linked to modernist aesthetics. Indeed, such interests might be seen as a defining characteristic of modernism itself.
1. All references to Ulysses in the following pages are identified by episode and line number – the figure 11.785, for instance, designates the 11th episode, line 785 according to the Gabler edition of 1986. Return to the article
2. (I can feel that my book will have to become it’s subject matter: constructive music). Return to the article
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