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.