Source of book: I own this.
It is always a bit intimidating to review a book that is the favorite book of someone who reads this blog. In this case, longtime commenter Ann. It’s not quite as intimidating as reading an English Lit teacher’s favorite, at least.
Anyway, I found a lovely Franklin hardback edition of this book back before Covid, and decided to make a point of reading it this year. Actually, I have done pretty well the last several years at reading some books in translation - I think it is important to experience works from around the world - but I haven’t read that much translated from German. If I am remembering correctly, those works would be Faust, Siddhartha, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Schumann on Music. Which, I guess, isn’t bad, now that I look at it.
The Magic Mountain isn’t really like anything else I have read. It was originally intended by Mann to be a short story, based loosely on his wife’s stay in a tuberculosis sanitarium and his brief visit; but obviously, it grew beyond anything the author had anticipated, with my edition consisting of more than 700 pages of small (but readable) print. And that is a good place to start: the book is more than 700 pages about a stay in a sanitarium. Mann’s explanation is pretty amusing, actually. He was indeed advised to stay there longer, and felt the same pull that Hans Castorp does.
If I had been Hans Castorp, the discovery might have changed the whole course of my life. The physician assured me that I should be acting wisely to remain there for six months and take the cure. If I had followed his advice, who knows, I might still be there! I wrote The Magic Mountain instead.
So yes, a long book about wanting to stay in a sanitarium. But that is just the surface, of course.
Hans Castorp, the rather naive hero, comes to the Berghof, a fictional name for a real place, to visit his ill cousin Joachim. (You can stay there now that Davos has become a resort town.) He begins to feel ill, and is diagnosed as tubercular himself. The stay eventually stretches out to seven years, before Hans leaves to enlist as a soldier in World War One. Along the way, Joachim makes a failed attempt to return to his normal life as a soldier, returning to die. Hans also meets and is influenced by five main characters, who likely represent philosophical ideas.
With a view like that, I would be philosophical too....
That’s kind of a basic outline, at least. The interpretation of the novel is a much more difficult manner. In a short essay written a quarter century after the book, Mann encourages the reader to read it at least twice, in order to understand the themes. I could see where this would be helpful, but in the end, the novel remains ambiguous and ambivalent.
It is certainly easy to see a few themes. Death, illness, time, and the meaning of life are pretty obvious. Likewise, there are many extended discussions between the characters about philosophical ideas current in pre-war Europe. Like Hans, Mann seems to waver between ideas, pulled first one way then another, and finding some form of resolution only in the sense that he commits to his destiny as a soldier (and likely cannon fodder) in the war.
The five characters are fascinating. First is Joachim, who exemplifies the old-school idea of duty and country and obedience. He wants nothing more than to return to his life as a soldier, and dies, if not on the battlefield like a true hero, in a hero’s manner, unflinching to the end. For all that, he is also a decent human being, and in that sense, perhaps the most admirable of the characters, even though his philosophy seems shallow and outdated. Particularly in light of the change in warfare from the nobility’s occupation to wholesale slaughter in the trenches.
The next is Clavdia Chauchat (spelling differs in translations - I’m going with the one in mine), a married (but separated) woman given the “exotic” ethnicity of Kyrgyzstan, with its meeting of East and West. Clavdia is described often as a “slant-eyed beauty,” which isn’t particularly comfortable to read in the 21st Century, although it was probably normal for the 1930s. Hans falls in love with Clavdia, and proceeds to obsess over her for most of the book. About midway through the book, on Walpurgis Night, he declares his love for her in an extended conversation all in French. (Note: I am not fluent in French, although it’s relationship to English means I could pick up a few words here and there. I used google for a bit, but I do not promise that I understood much of the nuance of this section.) Clavdia represents erotic love and temptation, and serves as a distraction for Hans from his quest for enlightenment. Unfortunately, she is not as well developed of a character as would have been nice - there really are no developed female characters in the book.
In contrast to Joachim and Clavdia who represent ideas by who they are, the next two are given pages and pages and pages of time to tell us in excruciating detail who they are and what they stand for.
Settembrini is an Italian humanist, representing the values of the Enlightenment. Except for his curious loathing of music, he is probably the closest to my own values. I am a bit puzzled by how Mann writes this character, mostly because in the first part of the book, he seems to play Settembrini for laughs, as kind of a comic exaggeration of the humanist writer; while by the second half, after his antagonist has been introduced, Settembrini seems to become a stand-in for the author’s own views. Despite this seeming midstream change, I rather enjoyed Settembrini.
Later in the book, we are introduced to Settembrini’s frenemy and main antagonist, Naphta, who is (believe it or not), a Jew who becomes a Jesuit, and espouses a peculiar totalitarian theocratic communism. Yes, you read that right. Times (and places) are different in the book than the 21st Century United States, to say the least. Here, our “christian” religious sorts set themselves up as the polar opposite of communism, instead making common cause with the far right, advocating for unregulated capitalism, social darwinism, and in some cases fascism. (That last one dates back to the KKK, though, so it is pretty clearly an American phenomenon.) It was a bit weird to see leftist theocracy, I must say. Naphta is based on a real person, György Lukács, likewise a Jew turned Jesuit. And yes, the book does take a weird turn into Rosicrucianism at one point.
That said, Naphta isn’t entirely wrong about everything. He makes some solid points, and scores some hits against Settembrini’s more elitist beliefs.
Finally, there is Myneer Peeperkorn, a Dutch capitalist dying of malaria and drunkenness. He is a Dionysian force, full of vitality, but lacking in any self-discipline or intellectual depth. He reminds me at times of Trump, and not in a good way. Hans falls under his spell, not least because Clavdia has become Peeperkorn’s lover, so Hans subsumes his sexual frustration into hero worship.
I suppose one could also mention the bizarre seance scene near the end, where Hans flirts with, then rejects spiritualism; and the more wholesome obsession that Hans develops with classical music once the sanitarium buys a gramophone.
My favorite scene, though, is the one where Hans skis up to a magnificent viewpoint, and has an epiphany in the gathering snow and darkness. To be fair, the scene also horrified me, because (in the practical sense) was foolish as hell and nearly got himself killed of hypothermia. But that is why I am safe to hike with - I plan a lot better, to say the least. Sorry about that digression. I really did love the scene, and the language was transcendent like the epiphany itself. I myself have stood on mountains and felt that, and it wasn’t just the hypoxia.
In a book this long, it was inevitable that I would write down a bunch of quotes that I liked.
First was an early conversation between Hans, Joachim, and Settembrini - when the latter is still being played more for laughs. Settembrini expresses his belief that there is nothing noble in illness and suffering, and it may be a sign of weakness or moral defect. As it turns out later, Settembrini doesn’t really believe all this in practice - he is ill too, of course, and suffers with dignity. In fact, this early statement is Hans’ naive response, in reference to the vulgar and tasteless Frau Stohr. (She later demands tastelessly that “the Erotica” be played for Joachim’s funeral…)
“That seems so strange to me: diseased and stupid both - I don’t exactly know how to express it, but it gives me a most peculiar feeling, when somebody is so stupid, and then ill into the bargain. It must be the most melancholy thing in life. One doesn’t know what to make of it; one wants to feel a proper respect for illness, of course - after all there is a certain dignity about it, if you like. But when such asininity comes on top of it - “cosmic” for “cosmetic,” and other howlers like that - one doesn’t know whether to laugh or weep. It is a regular dilemma for the human feelings - I find it more deplorable than I can say. What I mean is, it’s not consistent, it doesn’t hang together; I can’t get used to the idea. One always has the idea of a stupid man as perfectly healthy and ordinary, and of illness as making one refined and clever and unusual. At least as a rule…”
While Settembrini goes perhaps a bit too far, he has a fascinating response, which has a lot of truth in it:
“Disease has nothing refined about it, nothing dignified. Such a conception is in itself pathological, or at least tends in that direction. Perhaps I may arouse your mistrust of it if I tell you how ancient and ugly this conception is. It comes down to us from a past seething with superstition, in which the idea of humanity had degenerated and deteriorated into sheer caricature; a past full of fears, in which well-being and harmony were regarded as suspect and emanating from the Devil, whereas infirmity was equivalent to a free pass to heaven.”
My own religious experience combines elements of both of these. (As does our culture.) Certain diseases - particularly cancer - can be considered as revealing good character and coming with a certain dignity in the “fight.” Whereas nobody “fights” against diabetes or heart disease. And there certainly is a tradition in which the suffering of disease is seen as purifying. On the other hand, the “wealth and health are signs of godliness” idea is also strong (and getting stronger) in American white religion, as a result of the embrace of social darwinsm in economic policy.
I might also add here that my wife’s experience as an ICU nurse involves a lot of dying people. And there are those who have died of Covid insisting until the moment they were intubated that Covid wasn’t real. So being ill doesn’t guarantee a focus on higher things, nor does it insulate one from asininity.
Soon afterward Settembrini dismisses music as a higher art:
“Music? It is the half-articulate art, the dubious, the irresponsible, the insensible. Perhaps you will object that she can be clear when she likes. But so can nature, so can a brook - what good is that to us? That is not true clarity, it is a dreamy, inexpressive, irresponsible clarity, without consequences, and therefore dangerous, because it betrays one into soft complacence. Let music play her loftiest role, she will thereby but kindle the emotions, whereas what concerns us is to awaken the reason.”
Booo! I was gratified that later Mann let Hans become enamored of music, which gives me hope he doesn’t feel the same way. Music can, of course, be used for evil - think of the way that certain jingoistic songs unite a people to slaughter another. But music also has always been political. Where you find an oppressed people, there you find the flowering of musical creativity and musical power.
For the first part of the book, the main opposition to Settembrini’s ideas comes from Hans’ own assumptions. For example, he mistrusts the idea of “humanism” as being akin to the temptation of Satan. Hans also advocates for a view of death that seems to set itself up as the opposite of life; thus his experience of being orphaned makes him cynical about the process of living. Settembrini responds to this with another intriguing argument.
“[T]he only sane, noble - and I will expressly add, the only religious way to think of death is as part and parcel of life; to regard it, with the understanding and with the emotions, as the inviolable condition of life. It is the very opposite of sane, noble, reasonable, or religious to divorce it in any way from life, or to play it off against it....For death is worthy of homage, as the cradle of life, as the womb of palingenesis. Severed from life, it becomes a spectre, a distortion, and worse. For death, as an independent power, is a lustful power, whose vicious attraction is strong indeed; to feel drawn to it, to feel sympathy with it, is without any doubt at all the most ghastly aberration to which the spirit of man is prone.”
Again, not sure I agree with Settembrini entirely, but I do think that one of the reasons that American Christianity deals so poorly with death is that it hasn’t fully embraced the truth that life and death are inseparable, if for no other reason than the laws of physics. It is bizarre to me that supposed Christians seem less capable than the atheists in my life at accepting the inevitability of death. Hans himself eventually comes to understand this as he borrows the doctor’s biology books, and questions whether life itself is a form of infection that afflicts matter.
Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial? The first step toward evil, toward desired and death, was taken precisely then, when there took place that first increase in the density of the spiritual, that pathologically luxuriant morbid growth, produced by the irritant of some unknown infiltration; this, in part pleasurable, in part a motion of self-defense, was the primeval stage of matter, the transition from the insubstantial to the substance. This was the Fall.
There is a lot here that reminds me of the essays I recently read by Loren Eiseley. Our modern understanding of life and origins must inevitably alter our understanding of ourselves and the Divine. Again, I am not agreeing with all of the ideas here - and Hans himself muses, digests, and comes to his own synthesis.
The beginning of Chapter Six (the chapters are long and have many subchapters) is pretty good.
What is time? A mystery, a figment - and all-powerful. It conditions the exterior world, it is motion married to and mingled with the existence of bodies in space, and with the motion of these. Would there then be no time if there were no motion? No motion if no time? We fondly ask. Is time a function of space? Or space of time? Or are they identical? Echo answers. Time is functional, it can be referred to as action; we say a thing is “brought about” by time. What sort of thing? Change! Now is not then, here not there, for between them lies motion.
That’s a pretty poetic explanation of Einstein’s work, honestly.
It isn’t until nearly 400 pages in that we meet Naphta, and his slippery sophistry. I was particularly struck by an early dialogue, in which he insists on a form of Presuppositionalism, one which has utterly poisoned our religious and political discourse here in the United States, for the last 150 or so years.
“The great schoolmen of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were agreed that what is false in theology cannot be true in philosophy. We can, if you like, leave theology out of the argument; but a humanity, a cultural conception, which refuses to recognize that what is philosophically false cannot be scientifically true, is not worthy of the name.”
And thus, according to Naphta, Galileo was wrong. And really, this is the exact argument that Fundies make for everything from Young Earth Creationism to a cruel and ignorant approach to human sexuality. Theology (aka ideology) trumps reality. Which is Naphta’s argument. Settembrini parries with a question:
“Answer me this, answer me in the presence of these two young listeners: Do you believe in truth, in objective, scientific truth, to strive after the attainment of which is the highest law of all morality, and whose triumphs over authority form the most glorious page in the history of the human spirit?”
As to the first part, hell yes! I believe in objective, scientific truth. And I also agree that the triumph of absolute truth over authority is indeed one of the greatest developments of modern times. Fundies would disagree with both, of course. They do NOT believe in absolute truth, but in absolute authority, which is very different. And it gives them power, naturally. Naphta’s response is too long to quote, but it combines a weird (to my ears) combination of a claim that “truth” means whatever profits mankind and that ignorance of science paired with theological correctness is true enlightenment. The first is both an example of Naphta’s commuinist syncretism and the prelude to the nasty assertion that mankind’s good consists in “salvation” by believing the right things. In a later conversation, Naphta again takes a pretty pernicious turn in his rhetoric, claiming that humanitarian progress was actually a hindrance to the soul-saving enterprise.
They would have provided neither one side nor the other; the ailing and wretched as little as the strong and prosperous, these latter not having been piteous for pity’s sake, but for the salvation of their own souls. Successful social reform would have robbed them of their necessary justification, as it would the wretched of their sanctified state. The persistence of poverty and sickness had been in the interest of both parties, and the position could be sustained just so long as it was possible to hold to the purely religious point of view.
Damn. You can hear this today from white “christians” who are adamantly opposed to any government intervention on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. The rich (them, usually) spiritually profit from giving a pittance in charity to the poor, while the poor get to be purified by suffering. Everyone benefits! But actually give the working poor a living wage, and, well, all that great spiritual benefit dries up. Right? Sigh. It is weird to see the same sickening rhetoric still being used today to oppose social reform. I’m sure there is zero connection between their philosophy and their relative wealth and privilege in our society, right? On a related note, Naphta, the Jesuit sworn to poverty lives in an ostentatious and comfortable manner, while the humanist Settembrini has to live on what his writing can bring him, reusing the same threadbare coat year after year.
Finally, near the end, before the quarrel between Settembrini and Naphta takes an unnecessary and tragic turn, Naphta expresses yet another viewpoint that has poisoned Fundies’ ability to embrace reality.
But even worse was the way he talked about science - in which he did not believe. He did not believe, he said, in it, because it was permissible to exercise choice, whether to believe in it or not. It was a belief, like any other, only worse, stupider than any; the word “science” was the expression of the silliest realism...was not the idea of a material world existing by and for itself the most laughable of all self-contradictions?
This is how we have gotten to the point we are with Covid, the election, and so many other things. There is a Conservative Fantasy World, in which belief in reality itself is a “choice.” Believe or not, as you wish. Except that Fundies genuinely believe that it is sinful to believe reality over dogma. Go down that road, and soon you start burning witches, so to speak, eliminating those pesky reminders of a reality that doesn’t fit neatly with ideology. Naphta goes there all too easily, just following the natural implications of his philosophy.
Switching gears a bit, the scene surrounding Joachim’s death is interesting for what it reveals about the various characters. I can’t get into it all, but it was well written. I do want to quote the doctor, Hofrat Behrans, about the process of death.
I know what death is, I am an old retainer of his; and believe me, he’s overrated...But about death - no one who came back from it could tell you anything, because we don’t realize it. We come out of the dark and go into the dark again, and in between lie the experiences of our life. But the beginning and the end, birth and death, we do not experience; they have no subjective character, they fall entirely in the category of objective events, and that’s that.
Ecclesiastes gives a similarly non-committal answer about death. Who is to know that the spirit of man rises to heaven? Or, as Rabelais put it, death and the afterlife are “the big perhaps.”
It isn’t until most of these philosophical discussions are over that the most bombastic event occurs. Indeed, it occurs after the mountaintop epiphany. Mynheer Peeperkorn shows up, and quickly becomes the focus of the entire social world at the sanatorium. What is bizarre is that he is able to sound profound and string everyone along, without actually saying anything. Here is just one example.
In a rather low voice he said: “Ladies and gentleman. Very well. Very well indeed. Very. Settled. But will you keep in mind, and - not for one moment - not one moment - lose sight of the fact - but no more. On this point not another word. What is incumbent on me to say is not so much - it is in the first place simply this: it is our duty - we lie under a solemn - an inviolable - No! No, ladies and gentlemen! It was not thus - it was not thus that I - how mistaken to imagine that I - quite right, ladies and gentlemen! Set-tled. Let us drop the subject. I feel we understand each other, and now - to the point!”
He had said absolutely nothing. But look, manner, and gestures were so peremptory, perfervid, pregnant, that all, even Hans Castorp, were convinced they had heard something of high moment; or, if aware of the total lack of matter and sequence in the speech, certainly never missed it.
This is the same thing that puzzles me about the appeal of Trump. Other than his fairly clear appeal to xenophobia and racism, not with dog whistles but with a bullhorn, his actual policies are devoid of any substance. Just like Peeperkorn uses “settled” and “very well” and “I feel we understand each other” - phrases he uses all the freaking time - Trump uses “winning” and “great” and “beautiful” and all these other Trumpisms that have no meaning. And yet some people I know still insist he actually has all these great plans. In reality, he never had a plan. For anything other than “build a giant fucking wall to keep brown-skinned people out.” That’s the only plan he ever had. And it shows particularly biggly when it comes to Covid. And no, “do nothing” is not a plan, just a vapid policy that has led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Not surprisingly, Peeperkorn turns out to have a retrograde view of women. He trots out the “women want to be loved” thing. Hans, under his influence, makes a statement of his own, which is, interestingly, a lot deeper than Peeperkorn’s view.
You ask a woman, “Do you love him?” And she tells you: “He loves me so much!” and rolls her eyes up, or else rolls them down. Imagine an answer like that from one of us - if you will pardon me putting us in the same category. Perhaps there are men who would answer like that, but they are poor-spirited creatures - their women wear the breeches, if you will forgive the expression. I should like to know what kind of self-appraisement is at the bottom of the feminine answer. Is it that the woman thinks she owes a man boundless devotion merely because he has conferred the favour of his choice upon so lowly a creature? Or does she see in the man’s love an infallible sign of her personal excellence?
Peeperkorn’s most interesting statement of the entire book, in my view, comes when he lets his guard down with Hans.
Man is intoxicated by his desire, woman demands and expects to be intoxicated by it.
I am rather doubtful that this is anywhere near universal these days, although it seems perhaps a nice phallocentric explanation for gender inequality. And, in the context of the book, it may be reasonably compatible with the actions of Hans, Peeperkorn, and Clavdia.
Goodness, there is so much more I could say. Mann strongly implies that the ways of Naphta and Peekerkorn are self-destructive, and I agree with him in that. It is sad to see their ignoble ends, though, as they each have a degree of sincerity and vibrance that give the book its life. While Hans’ enlistment in arguably history’s most senseless war is a letdown. The Magic Mountain, the ascending quest for enlightenment, Hans’ journey seem to portend greater things for him. But, as in the case of Galahad (which Mann seems to have used as inspiration), enlightenment is incomplete. We glimpse but cannot grasp the Grail. The quest ends with the dissolution of the Round Table and the death of Arthur and all he stands for. It certainly must have felt like that to Mann, completing the book in the aftermath of the destruction of the flowering youth of Europe. The old world had passed, although it would take until the end of the Second World War before Europe was truly willing to discard the corpse of monarchy and nationalism and embrace a new world.
I am sure I missed so many things in this book, and perhaps will never see everything that Mann intended. There are clearly leitmotifs throughout, parallel events, and interlocking ideas, only some of which I noted fully. Whatever the case, this was quite the read, an epic in which little “happens” in the physical world, while a whole world happens in the psyche. A special thanks to Ann for her encouragement to read this book, and for her perceptive and helpful comments on my blog over the last decade.
Davos is now famous as a place where the ultra-rich get together for the World Economic Forum, and it is perhaps the most famous Swiss resort town.
I have been to Switzerland once, for just a few days, as part of a trip I took during law school. We went in October, which was pretty darn magical. No significant snow, cool days and cold nights, and brilliant sunshine. I love the mountains as it is - my heart is in California’s Sierra Nevada. But man, I really want to return to Switzerland. We went to a far less commercial spot, Gimmelwald, above Interlochen (think Louis Agassiz, who postulated the Ice Age), and were the only people at this small farmhouse lodge. My regret is that I ran out of daylight before I hiked to the top of the Schilthorn. And man, the morning view of the Jungfrau was spectacular. That is what came to my mind throughout this book. I too could have stayed there forever...