The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I would love to write 1000 or 2000 words in dismayed praise of The Magic Mountain, this magisterial 1924 classic of world fiction whose preface threatens that it may take the reader seven years to read, the same number of years that it narrates; it took me five long weeks, and I feel as if Thomas Mann has used up all the words there are or ever will be, that I must simply sit, having finished this Alpine ordeal, in mute, awed disquietude. I will do my best to say something, nevertheless. As the older Georg Lukács (whose younger self turns up on Mann’s mountain in the guise of the Jew-Jesuit-Communist-Terrorist Leo Naphta) so notoriously complained, the imperial bourgeoisie has in its decadence abandoned Mann’s Herculean and forbiddingly successful efforts toward holistic meaning. We are lazy nihilists, without even the courage of our privilege, who write in miserable, metaphysically spiteful fragments as we nervously eye the horizon for the army of our liquidation. And so it will be here.
The novel’s story, briefly, though I suspect if you are interested in this novel you already know the outline: a young orphaned bourgeois German engineering student, Hans Castorp, intends to have a brief visit with his soldier cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, in the Berghof, an Alpine tuberculosis sanatorium administered by Dr. Hofrat Behrens. In the course of things, Hans is himself diagnosed with tuberculosis, and remains on the titular mountain for seven years, before leaving to fight in the Great War. During his stay in the Berghof, he begins a long study of science and human nature, partially presided over by the two pedagogues who compete for his allegiance, the Enlightenment humanist Lodovico Settembrini and the aforementioned anti-modern reactionary-revolutionary Leo Naphta. Perhaps more importantly, he is inducted into the mysteries of eros when he falls in love with Clavdia Chauchat, a Russian woman who reminds him of a youthful boy-crush with similarly Slavic origins; Clavdia stands for everything the Western European haute bourgeoisie has repressed: sex, femininity, queerness, and “the Orient.” The novel, in short, narrates the prying-open of Hans Castorp, the deconstruction of the ordinary Western bourgeois subject, a deconstruction in which the symbolically feverish young man genially acquiesces, as his rest-cure repose allows him an imaginative access to all reality. On the one hand, this apotheosis of the mind’s sovereignty is just what Hans calls it, “playing king.” On the other hand, what does the mind in its sovereignty learn? That life is a disease of matter, that man is a speck in the universe, that the heart beats in tiny fragility within the howling winds of uncaring nature. Mind in its sovereignty learns that mind is not sovereign.
This novel is often said to a parody of the bildungsroman; it is a parody because the bildung, which was supposed to fit the youth for service to his way of life, fails as it succeeds, granting Hans (called throughout the novel “one of life’s problem children”) a set of extraordinary thoughts and experiences that imply nothing less than the contingency and ultimate doom of his way of life. That Hans goes back down the mountain to fight for Germany implies less a return to the normativity of what the Berghof residents somewhat contemptuously call “the flatland” and more the amor fati of the untimely artist/intellectual. The novel is often said to be ironic: but all irony is not sarcasm, i.e., a knowing reversal of what is said; sometimes, rather, it is the helpless knowledge, expressed less by any one word than by bemusement of tone, that what is happening is impossible or wrong but also entirely necessary or unavoidable.
Mann’s third-person narrator, who is sometimes delightful and sometimes annoying, provides extensive commentary on Hans’s educative process, always in a slyly amused voice that is at first at Hans’s expense and that is later the voice that Hans himself will grow into. I know I’m the one who brought up Lukács, but still, I hope we are well beyond tedious debates about whether The Magic Mountain is “realist” or “modernist.” It certainly aspires to a comprehensiveness and solidity that one thinks of as belonging to the nineteenth century, to Dickens and Eliot, Stendhal and Tolstoy. But at every moment it displays its own limits, allegorizes its own procedures (who is the narrator if not someone very like Hans Castorp?), embeds its own autocritique. If we read them closely, though, I think we will find that Dickens and Eliot, Stendhal and Tolstoy, did no less. This having one’s cake and eating it too—this “persistent critique of what one cannot not want” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s summary of deconstruction)—is irony, is what belongs to every great work, is what overruns and overrides all the –isms, is simply literature.
The Magic Mountain is often said to be a novel of ideas. And certainly ideas are discussed—usually between Naptha and Settembrini at excessive length. (I found the length excessive anyway, largely because I have already had my share of the exact same arguments—usually with myself!) But Hans eventually comes to see that, as Settembrini and Naphta chase each other around the corpus of Western thought, they become each other, become their own opposites, so that the Jesuit-Communist ends up endorsing individualism and the bourgeois humanist celebrates war, violence, and discipline. The point of Mann’s novel of ideas—like that of other novels of ideas before it (Crime and Punishment) and after it (Herzog)—is to show that ideas are embodied and enfleshed, circumstanced and materialized. They wait upon life, despite their pretense to preside over it. The mind can only “play” king because it can never be king.
Readers who make it most of the way through the novel will be rewarded with an odd, long chapter, the third from the end, almost a novella unto itself, about a psychic girl, Elly Brand, who comes to stay in the Berghof. The Berghof’s resident psychoanalyst, Dr. Krokowski, has by the end of the novel moved from Freud to Jung as Europe itself becomes progressively more irrational, and he is only too eager to enlist Elly in his psychical researches. As a result, we readers are treated to seriocomic set of spiritualist set-pieces, which climaxes with a manifestation of Hans Castorp’s dead cousin, Joachim. But this is only the terminus to a vein of occultism and hermeticism that runs throughout the novel. Naphta at one point sympathetically explicates the spiritual tradition of the Freemasons, lamenting that it has decayed into the secular illuminati represented by Settembrini. Hans, following Naptha’s long speech, comes to understand his experience as a hermetic one, a kind of quest for the philosopher’s stone, his achievement of mind an alchemical wedding, his consummation with the ideal—even as (here again is our irony) its fleshly goad is both illness and Hans’s erotic infatuation with the somewhat dissolute Mme Chauchat.
Does the novel believe in psychic powers, in telekinesis, in ghosts? I suspect it both does believe in them and dismisses them. What is the mere conjuring of specters to the creation of character? What is the occult but an inferior—because too literal, too materialistic—form of art? I once put this question to a literature class: “What is magic?” A student whom I believe to have been very religious simply answered, “Power.” (There are some ideas, I find, that only very religious students understand.) And power is not what Hans or Mann are after, or so I believe.
I do not read German, but neither did I notice that this translation, the celebrated 1995 version by John E. Woods, even was a translation, so tonally rich and variegated, so lyrical, so eloquent, was the prose. Mann uses a Wagner-inspired (or is it Homer-inspired?) leitmotif method throughout the novel, wherein certain verbal tags get attached to characters and experiences, phrases which accrue meaning and significance like coral as they recur throughout the immensely long novel, whether it is simple character descriptions (Behrens “rows” with his arms when he walks; Clavdia always slams doors; a minor player constantly uses malapropisms) or a more complicated concept (like the aforementioned “playing king”). But more than meaning, the motifs give the novel a unified texture, a circularity of structure, just as Hans comes to understand time as less a line than a circle, less progressive than recursive. And when things come back, even as the novel’s losses mount (one TB death and two suicides, among others), the reader cannot help but be moved.
I have not even mentioned the novel’s host of Dickensianly vivid minor characters, the essayistic passages as extraordinary as the writing of any essayist, the dreams and visions. I have not mentioned the novel’s experimental structure, wherein half the book is devoted to Hans’s first few weeks on the mountain, his days meticulously accounted for, while the second half covers about six years in an impressionistic blur, to signify how we get used to things, how we let our experiences elude us through habit. I have not mentioned Mann’s proleptic contempt for stupid “craft” rules of fiction writing, as when he keeps introducing major characters right up to the end of the book, which makes the novel feel like an ongoing experiment rather than a calculated effort.
I have not mentioned the novel’s intense though rarely announced engagement with German thought—you do not necessarily need to read the following to read The Magic Mountain, but they will help: Kant on the sublime, Hegel on the state, Schopenhauer on the will, Nietzsche on the Dionysian, Freud on the uncanny, Jung on dreams, Lukács on reification. I have not mentioned the stunning chapter on the gramophone, which, like the stunning chapter on the X-ray before it, allies recording technology with ghosts; and which excavates Hans’s developing character through his favorite pieces of music. I have not mentioned the sometimes hilarious, sometimes devastating, sometimes sickening portrayal of illness, death, and decay.
I have not mentioned the most famous chapter, “Snow,” in which Hans, lost on an ill-advised skiing expedition in a blizzard, has the novel’s climactic epiphany, or “poem of humankind”:
Man is the master of contradictions, they occur through him, and so he is more noble than they. More noble than death, too noble for it—that is the freedom of his mind. More noble than life, too noble for it—that is the devotion of his heart. […] Love stands opposed to death—it alone, and not reason, is stronger than death.
The Magic Mountain disturbs and provokes and exhausts. Like the experience it describes, it is difficult, it is a trial, it is a cure that is its own disease. But when I finished I was angry with myself for ever settling for anything less.
Thanks for the “dismayed praise”, a very interesting review. Let me ask you a question I keep asking everybody who has read The Magic Mountain. Why did Naphta kill himself during the duel with Settembrini?
Thanks! I assume his willingness to allow himself to be killed by Settembrini, and then his suicide when that doesn’t work out, stems from his dualism and his conviction that the spirit is superior to the body: Naphta’s suicide is a kind of perverse proof that the soul exists since it can override the body’s natural desire to persist.
Thank you for this interpretation. This is the first time I hear it. Something to ponder on in my spare time. The last one I heard was that Mann had made Naphta kill himself to show the suicidal nature of fascism.
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