Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

I first attempted to read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann about twenty years ago. I stopped reading about ten percent of the way in. I felt that I was not ready for it. I wanted to go in understanding the underlying ideas a little better. This time around I felt a little better about taking on this novel. Though the book threw a dizzying array of ideas at me, I found it to be a brilliant and fulfilling work. First published in 1924, this is an enormous, dense and challenging book that is bursting with ideas. The novel is a mix of serious and parody. I read the John E. Woods translation. This is a long work. My copy was 700 pages long. These were long and dense pages. The book goes slowly. Mann takes his time in getting anywhere.  A book that was formatted differently may have contained about a thousand pages. Despite some difficulties, I ultimate found this to be a superb novel. In fact, this was one of the best reading experiences that I have ever had. 

The plot of the book is fairly simple. During the years preceding World War I, Hans Castorp, a young German man, visits his friend Joachim Ziemssen, who is staying at the Berghof tuberculosis sanatorium in the mountains of Switzerland. Originally planning to stay only three weeks, the young protagonist ends up staying 7 years. During this time, a host of characters who live and work at the sanitarium are introduced.  These characters spend a lot of time discussing philosophy, social issues and life in general. In fact, the novel is driven by these musings.   Characters include Lodovico Settembrini, who is a humanist and seems to get the most philosophizing in. Professor Naphta is a strange Jesuit priest who is also a radical in every way. Castrop’s friend Joachim is a military man who emphasizes values of duty and loyalty.  Mynheer Peeperkorn is a rich and hedonistic man with a magnetic personality. Clavdia Chauchat is Castrop’s love interest and seems to embody eroticism. Ellen Brand may have some kind of psychic powers and appears to represent spiritualism. 

I generally do not read too much commentary on a book until after I have written my post on it. However, I read a little on this one as I felt that I needed a little grounding. The consensus among critics is that the Berghof sanatorium and its guests are a microcosm of pre-World War I society with emphasis on intellectualism. Furthermore, Castorp is on a kind of quest for ideas. The book is highly symbolic with many of the places and characters having mythological analogies. How Mann felt about the various belief systems explored here is open to debate, as he was apparently elusive about this point. At times, he seems to be making fun of ideas, and at other times, he seems to hold some of them in reverence.  Time is also a recurrent theme. Its passage is noted, observed and analyzed throughout the narrative. As the novel takes place in a tuberculosis sanitarium, death and illness is also an important theme. Various characters try to analyze illness in the context of religion and philosophy. There seem to be parallels between the sickness of the patients and the sickness of Western thought that led to World War I. Through all of this, Castorp observes and takes it all in as he occasionally participates. 

The book is sprawling and at times chaotic. What I mean by this is that the story does not present organized debates and discussions by people with clearly defined belief systems. Instead the chapters jump from one topic to another, and then revisit topics. There is also a lot that goes on in between discussions, delving into the day to day activities of Castorp and the others involving eating, romantic connections, medical issues, explorations of nature, playing games, etc., much of it infused with meaning. Sometimes ideas are represented by a character’s actions rather than their speeches. Some of the characters are not clear-cut representatives of particular belief systems or lifestyles and are sometimes all over the place. Mann also goes down some obscure philosophical directions. The characters often act in silly and over the top ways. The effect is often very funny. 

There are strange things going on in this book. People get drawn into life at Berghof. Many are promised that they will be cured in a few months but instead stay for years. The institution pulls people in. When Castrop’s uncle James Tienappel comes to visit, he is nearly pulled into staying long term in the same way that Castorp was and barely breaks free.  There is in place a bizarre system where sicker patients are almost looked at as more virtuous and have higher social status than their less ill peers. A rift forms between patients and their family and friends back home. 

I find the quest aspect of all of this very interesting. The entire searching through ideas that Castorp is engaged in throughout the novel is in some ways akin to my philosophy when it comes to reading.  That is, take in different ideas as well as their counter arguments. Try to approach these concepts with an open mind. However, in the end, one must assess and make judgement about these ideas.

Settembrini and Naphta spend a lot of time debating their respective belief systems. As they do so, it seems that they engage in this activity for the benefit of Castorp. 

Frequently they did not speak to one another, but instead each would turn to Hans Castorp to deliver his views, lecturing him, while pointing a head or thumb at the real opponent. Hans Castorp was trapped between them: turning his head back and forth, he would agree first with one, then with the other, or he would come to a stop, bending his body backward and gesticulating with a hand inside its fur – lines goatskin glove, and offer some opinion of his own – some highly unsatisfactory comment
  
Once again, I find that the above is somewhat akin to writers who are aiming their prose at readers. The fact that they debate one another is not so different from authors and philosophers who are often in a kind of conversation and debate with one another.  

As someone who also loves philosophical and other types of musings, I loved this book. Despite being unusual and at times enigmatic, I feel that I was treated to a feast of ideas. Sometimes the ideas grappled with the great questions that humans have grappled with for centuries, and at other times, it went off in some unusual directions. Thus, Mann rarely fails to interest and delight. 



Some thoughts about  Nihilism and World War I (The Below Contains Spoilers)



There is so much going on in this book. This work will lend itself to rereading. I would compare it to a giant buffet of ideas. I just want to focus upon one idea that I had about one aspect of the story. As per above,  I read some commentary on this work before composing this post. However, the below musings are entirely my own.  I have been thinking about the fate of Professor Naphta and Lodovico Settembrini. 

There is a confrontation near the end of the book. Throughout the narrative, Settembrini and Naphta have debated their ideas. Settembrini is a humanist who is optimistic about human progress and the future. Naphta is a radical and a nihilist. He is described as a terrorist at several points. Naphta has gone as far as to welcome war and destruction. Towards the end of the novel,  Naphta challenges Settembrini to a duel. The reader suspects that the nihilist has decided that he wants to kill Settembrini once and for all. For his part, Settembrini declares that he will not kill and in fact shoots into the air at the commencement of the dueling.  To everyone’s shock Naphta does not shoot into the air nor does he  shoot Settembrini. Instead, he turns his pistol on himself and commits suicide. Settembrini survives the duel, but he seems to be left damaged. He grows weaker and sicker. He stops writing and stops participating in the intellectual circles of humanist Europe. 

Naphta represents chaos, nihilism and destruction. It seems to me that Napata’s suicide did to Settembrini what World War I did to optimistic humanism. That is, the war demoralized many of its adherents and left it, as the belief system, a shell of what it was before. At the very least, this seems to be Mann's view. 

As he is portrayed as being ethical and reasoned, it seems that Mann may have been sympathetic to the humanistic views of Settembrini. Yet, he understood what the cataclysm of World War I did to such an optimistic outlook. 

At the novel’s conclusion, Castorp gets pulled into the combat of World War I. Mann reminds us of the horror of it all as well as of the scientific and technological connections.

He has thrown himself on his stomach at the approach of a howling hound of hell, a large explosive shell, a hideous sugarloaf from the abysses.  

Laden with horror, this product of science gone beserk.

Optimistic, pro - science and technology humanism seems to have failed and instead led to horrific cataclysm. This was the view of many following the catastrophes and slaughters of the first half of the twentieth century. Settembrini’s fate seems symbolic of all this.  Eventually, decades later, optimistic humanism did bounce back and seems to be at something of a high point right now. I count myself as one of its cautious adherents. 

35 comments:

mudpuddle said...

this post has to be one of the best i've read on the net... your analysis is simply wonderful, and spot on. i read this about forty years and admittedly have now forgotten a lot of it. now i have to reread it. i recall, at the time i was reading it, that it resembled in many ways "The Brothers Karamazov". so maybe i'll have to reread that as well... anyway, tx for i great wake-up lit experience...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Muddpuddle. I remember The Brothers Karamazov as also being filled with ideas.

This book really would lend itself to rereading.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I speak for many when I say I so look forward to your posts because they are so insightful and well written and your review of Magic Mountain is great and you give us so much to think about.

I did read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann many years ago and I found it a struggle but I do like the premise of Magic Mountain. The setting being a TB sanitorium would be a place where the residents would be facing possible death and so in a sense it becomes its own little community cut off from every day life. The residents would be dealing with fear but also among themselves there would be time to discuss deep philosophical issues, the big questions. I enjoy those sort of books.

World War I was a devastating event. Its been overshadowed understandably by the even more horrific World War II but I see your point about Mann believing that the first World War changed things forever with regard to human nature, optimism, faith etc. The world was never the same.

CyberKitten said...

I think I had a 'go' at this in my 20's and gave up pretty early from what I can remember. I might give it another 'go' later - and because of the size it'll be post-retirement. I'll let you know when I take up the challenge!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Kathy. The setting of this book was perfect for storytelling. Philosophical books can be so interesting.

This was my first Mann.

The First World War shattered so many beliefs . World War II shattered many that remained. But, and this may be a bit controversial, I think that to some degree the idealists were on to something. It just took a few more decades then many thought it would.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - The best advice that I can give is not to be in a hurry when you start this.

Susan Kane said...

I always look at the people and the reasons they each have for staying. It reminds me somewhat of "Hotel California" where you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

Did the residents check out but could never leave?

Brian Joseph said...

Ha Susan! I love the Hotel California connection! The weirdness of the song kind of fits too.

baili said...

this is one of the most impressive review dear Brain

i am compelled to repeat that your blog is desirable for people who read fondly but for specially or cannot read due to business

this commentary stir my thoughts and gave wonderful start to my day

i found this book one of the most powerful read through your words and just made promise to myself that i will read it for sure

writer seems to be at great success by giving his book a theme and characters who speak for the present harsh realities ,no place than a sanatorium could be better to represent ideas that could reveal complexities of thoughts and despair spread by war.

Naphta's fate can be shocking but for while until we get that people with such frame of mind cannot think out of their box ,they are compelled to destruct whether it is others or their own selves

i love symbolic reads and this one seems perfect

one thing i missed that you could have use only few more paragraphs from book

one question that did you ever reviewed "Reawakening of East" by Bertrand Russel ?

if yes so please let me know month of posting so i can find and read it

Blessings!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili. People line Naphta do indeed exist and they do indeed spread destruction. The symbolism that connects this and the entire concept of war is well done here.

I have not read Bertrand Russell but I want to! Maybe I will no so soon.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought of it.

Lory said...

Fantastic overview. I do want to read this book at some point but I need to gear up for it. Having this introduction to some of the characters and ideas will be helpful.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lori. I found that there was a lot of basic and helpful stuff, in regards to what is going on in the book, online.

Ron Pavellas said...

You might be interested in this article:

Aschenbach’s Psychological Struggle: Freud and Jung on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

https://www.ijhsss.com/files/34_3pn42y90.-Satarupa-Deb.pdf

Judy Krueger said...

If anything could give me another reason to try this novel again it would be your review. On the other hand, you explicated it so well I feel I know what the novel is about. Last year when I was reading a biography of Albert Camus, I learned that he also had TB and regularly spent long periods of time in sanatoriums, so I could picture the setting. He had times of deep depression from the illness and times of euphoria whenever he was well enough to write.
I have a couple questions;
1. Did you take notes as you read or did you have to go back and organize your thoughts for the review before you wrote it?
2. What evidence do you have that positive humanism is at one of it highest points currently?

Brian Joseph said...


Hi Judy - I did not know that Camus had tuberculosis and I did not know that he spent time in a sanatorium. I could imagine him, or at least one of his characters, as a character in this book.

I almost always take notes when reading. I rely heavily on these notes when blogging. I usually read ebooks which I find fantastic for note taking and highlighting. However, this book is not available as an ebook so I used paper and stickies.

If there is one thinker who I think is responsible for the resurgence of positive humanism it is Steven Pinker. He is enormously popular and influential these days. I highly recommend his books, especially The Better Angels of Our Nature, Enlightenment Now and The Blank Slate. Here is a rundown of lots of other authors having an impact that was put together by Pinker himself.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/26/further-reading-steven-pinker-books-to-make-you-an-optimist

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Ron. Looks to be full of fascinating stuff.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian. This book has been on my shelf for a while. I know I need to read it. Your review shows that it is something I'll enjoy. I've read all of Mann's short stories and liked them a lot. Have you read Mario and The Magician? It's really good.

Have a great weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- I think that you would like this book. This is my first Mann but I will likely read more.

Have a great weekend.

baili said...

Thank you dear Brain for kind reply
It just came to my knowledge through your comment that you are dealing with some health issues sorry can't find your email address so dropping my best wishes here

Hope and pray May you be blessed with perfect health my friend!

Stephen said...

I wonder if there's a reason Mann used a sanitarium for this discussion, and why the sick would be regarded as more virtuous. Do you think Mann was criticizing an overly intellectual society -- that is, one that was becoming more obsessed with arguments than life? Michel de Montaigne introduced that as an idea in one of his letters, that we live in our heads too much.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for your thoughtfulness Baili. It turns out that I had a benign tumor a few years ago. It destroyed my vestibular nerve on this right side. As a result I am deaf on my right side and my balance is wobbly.The tumor was dealt with and is dead. It is no threat. It could hand been a lot worse.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen- A lot of critics speculate that Mann was trying to show that society was ill previous to The First World War. Thus, a sanitarium was a perfect setting. I think that you may be on to something in regards to the criticism of intellectual society.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
I'm glad that you enjoyed reading this long, dense novel, and found it very worthwhile, "a feast of ideas". It sounds like it was the right time for you to read it. (I seem to prefer reading shorter books, during the "lazy days" of summer.) Excellent, interesting commentary!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. I actually finished the book before summer really kicked in. But I tend not to read seasonably.

Brona said...

You’ve inspired me with this post Brian. For 2 reasons.
1: I’m planning on reading this one day but suspected it was going to need time & some research/prep to get through it. I don’t mind doing this for books if it allows me to get a much richer reading experience than if you go in unprepared.
2: I’m reading Moby-dick in August & I’m rather nervous about tackling this tricky classic. I suspect it will be a similar thing - needing prep and research to get as much as I can from the read. So you’ve given me hope that this will actually be the case.
Thank you

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Brona- I actually thought that this book felt denser the Moby Dick. One thing that I think people have trouble with Melville’s book is that it contains weird, not so relevant chapters about the whaling industry and other things. I found that online articles plus a few essays in some books around the house helped with this one.

Have fun with Moby Dick!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Confession time - I’ve only read two of Mann’s works, and one was a novella. Both were Biblical. The novella was about Moses, the novel was Joseph And His Brothers, a thumping great 1000-page epic. And both were very entertaining stuff, even funny, as well as touching. The Moses story was in an anthology called The Ten Commandments. The other nine stories, by different authors, were about how the Nazis broke every one of the commandments. You’ve probably read or at least heard of the Joseph novel. I read it in only a few days, it was so enjoyable.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - This is actually the first Mann that I have read. I have heard of Joseph and His Brothers and I do want to read it. That book sounds great.

James said...

Mann is among my favorite authors and this book is one reason why. Your review is spot on and I can only second your comment that this is a book to be reread. If you want an even ore amazing reading experience try his Joseph and His Brothers. You won't be disappointed.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I remember your commentary on Joseph and His Brothers. I plan to read that book. I expect to like it a lot.

JaneGS said...

Excellent post on a very difficult book. I read it roughly 40 years ago, and reading your post definitely helped me remember the novel and its context. Kudos to you for tackling it—I think reading some lit crit on a book like this enhances the experience because there is so much there that reading lit crit provides some channels to explore as you think about the work.

Well done.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane - I cannot imagine how much that I would have missed had I not read some commentary on this book.

thecuecard said...

Brian: this Mann book sounds right up your alley with all its philosophizing .... It might drive me to frustration with its tangents and density and oddness. I have read Mann's Death in Venice and didn't care for it's subject matter -- about an obsession with a young boy on a beach. Still I'm sure it's highly symbolic ... Mann seems fairly cryptic.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I think that if I had been in the wrong frame if mind then this would have driven me crazy. One needs to take this book leisurely and not read it for plot developments. Though there are a few interesting ones. I found that reading a little commentary took away some of the cryptic nature here. I must give A Death in Venice a try. I have heard that it has similar themes.

HKatz said...

Great review. I'm putting this on my to-read list because of the ideas discussed and also I like stories that have a group of quite different characters all sharing the same space and colliding in thought, personality, etc.

I'm interested too in the relationship between an idea and how it actually manifests in society, in action or policy.

Have you ever read the Solzhenitsyn novel, Cancer Ward? You might like it. A group of patients and doctors in a 1950s Soviet hospital for cancer patients (one of them an exile, another a party official, etc.), and it includes discussions of politics and ideology.