Sunday, September 19, 2010

"The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann

Here is a series of posts which I sent to a friend named L.
Together they add up to a nice draft of a review for that magnificent book : The Magic Mountain

private comment posted at 1:24 pm (EST) on Jan 29, 2010

Hello L.

I would find it a real pleasure to discuss the "Magic Mountain" with you because it is simply the best book I ever read.
It is true that I go back to it again and again for the reason that it's topics and themes are like live itself never exhausted.
There are many themes woven into the pages of the MM and quite a lot of minor topics which are worth a discussion. One reading does simply not suffice. You will have to join Hans again and again on his seven year stay if you want to start really enjoying it.

I suggest that you just put one question or remark at the time on my page and I will tell you ( if you want ) what is going on.

This book is so much like life itself that there is no right or wrong interpretation. Only yours. And even your own understanding will change as you will grow older and more experienced.



Dear L.

You made me laugh with your words but indeed even at 55, there is quite a lot to learn. I’ll give you one general theme and then I try to react on your questions. Here we go:

The MM is generally understood as a “Bildungsroman”.

An unassuming or ordinary young man ( depending which edition you read )leaves the real world down below and climbs up to the Olympian heights to stay 7 years among the half dead and the half cured ( the Moribundi ).

He is going to meet 7 “pedagogues”, some more important than others, some with a spoken lesson, and some acting as examples, who are fighting for the soul of young and naïve ( ? ) Hans Castorp .

At the end of the 7 years, Hans Castorp has grown into another man, he has learned a lesson and he is ready to take on the world.

Is he?

Critics and readers alike are still today not able to fully confidently agree about :

1) Has Hans learned something? Have you as a reader learned something?
2) And, if you and Hans have learned something, what is it?

The main problem is that we do not know if Thomas Mann was serious when he wrote this Bildungsroman or that he meant it as a parody of a coming-of-age roman. Thomas Man is notorious for his literary irony.

More surprisingly, as the world changes, the view on Hans education has changed with the general mood of the moment. If we assume that Thomas Mann was serious in his aim, we still don’t know for sure what Hans has learned.

Both extremes are valid.:

1.Hans has understood that every man should do his duty! Period. Simple. Clear.
That was the opinion in the fifties.


2. Hans has learned that there is no real wisdom. He follows the way of the mystic ( the via mystica ) and the more he knows the more he shuts up and buries himself in silence like an all knowing Hermit. This is the opinion of some Philosophers today.

At the end of your first reading, ask yourself: “What has our fiend Hans learned” What have we learned with him ?

The seven pedagogues who are fighting for Hans soul are also victims of Thomas Mann’s irony. They are all attractive in one way or the other and we love listening to them, being with them until our deeper knowledge warns us … hey there is something wrong here. Each pedagogue drives you into the hands of the next one.
All 7 Messengers introduce ideological paradigms and then dismantle it. ( this is very important to keep in mind, there is always a... but...)

I’ll take them in turn, briefly but it is an interesting exercise to list for all of them what they stand for.

1) Ludovico Settembrini,

He is a real nice person. He defends the value of the flatlands, he stands for progress, humanism, democracy. You could say he is the enlightened Socialist or American democrat. He does not like religion or primitive beliefs. Even tough he represents Hermes – the guide of the underworld – he immediately urges Hans back to reality, to the flatland.

He indeed likes to use the word engineer because, engineers stand for progress and Hans should to his job of engineer and not waste his time.

But Ludovico has also negative points : he speaks he speaks but never comes to action. But there is more for you to discover in the person of Ludovico.

2) Leopold Naphta,

He is not a nice person. He stands for : intellectual radicalism hard communism and fascism and intellectual religious fanatiscism.. He is against class and capitalism. He is for discipline. You dislike him but you listen. He is brilliantly intelligent and a fierce rhetoric. But you see immediately that behind the action he proposes ugly realities hide. He is like Al Qaida today,

His logic brings only one result : not what you think but what could be expected.

3) Clavdia Chauchat ( what is in a name ! )

Beautiful Clavdia stands for love, leisure and sexuality. And check your reading again… why does Hans remain on the mountain ? To listen to Settembrini ? No no no, just to be in the neighborhood of that lovely woman.

But to what avail? Platonic Love or consummation and what to do with the time between? Waste of time?

4) Pieter Peeperkorn

This grand Dutch Colonial represents live and the lust of live. This fascinating God-like has the real wisdom… but unfortunately in comparison with the others he cannot express it. He mumbles and fumbles. All the wisdom you need to know is right there if only you could hear it. He fits in really well with Clavdia. Love and Live.

5) Joachim

Hans alter ego. Duty personified. Not only as a soldier, but as a civilian too.
But poor Joachim, duty yes ! but at what price !

6) And finally Behrens and Krokowski , the point of view of the healers both bodily and mentally. Scientific correct but only able to win some time for the Moribundi before they die.

Hope this helps for the moment. There is of course much, much more.

Now your questions

You ask : Why is Hans always "Hans Castorp" while everyone else is referred to by first name, last name, title? No one else is always referred to by first and last name.

Critics think that Mann did that on purpose to underline how “ average “ “ordinary” “unassuming” he is and that without giving him two names he would not have enough “body” to survive between the tenors of this book. He is mister average – the famous “ Man without qualities” of Musil.

The theme of time is obvious--how and why time seems to pass slowly or quickly, the measurement of time.
It is indeed one of the major themes. Check the chapters. See how many chapters are spend on the first day, first week, first month, season, year, 7 years ! Mann is playing with fast forward, flashback, bullet – time etc.

You say : Settembrini--at times practical and at times a dreamer? Is he a foil for Hans Castorp? Also, probably not important but something I do get caught up in: In the original (I assume you have been able to read it in German) does he use Italian phrases? When he calls Hans Castorp "engineer" in the translation, I keep hearing "ingegnere". Italians do address people by their professions. This might not be important, but it is bothering me.

L., every word is important in the book. Settembrini is really an Italian with his hand moves and his niece words and his exaggerated manners. You are first surprised, then you laugh, you are attracted to him. Then it starts to bother you to annoy you and you react just like Hans Castorp you switch your attention to someone else.

Engineers should not stay idly in the Mountain, but should go down to the real world. Settembrini is the only one of the pedagogues who wants Hans back to the flatlands.

Yes he is practical, yes he is a dreamer. He has good points but also bad points. But again Settembrini is a good man although he has a double and well hidden agenda. The best approach to the MM is to assume that it is reality and to understand the actors as are real people, they stand for something but they have their flaws. Just like you and me


About Hans,

Thomas Mann has made him as "average" as possible, because he is indeed the naive young student.

He is the cup to be filled with wisdom.

Hans comes out a very rich family so he did not have to be "wise" to survive.
He is also an orphan. Neither his father nor his mother had the chance to influence him.

That is the reason why he is very enthusiast every time he hears something new, mimics it immediately, but also changes opinion as soon as someone brings something new.
He is 22 in the beginning of the story but you should compare him with someone of 16 today.

Be nice in your opinion to him. He really is from another time...


About Clavdia :

As I told you, there is a dark side with every "pedagogue".

Beautiful Clavdia with the high cheek bones and those Kirgiz eyes is of course also a femme fatale.
It is because of her that Hans stays on the mountain. It is because of her that Hans initially wastes his time on the mountain instead of doing his duty in the flatlands.

In that sense, Clavdia is both Circe and Calypso for poor Hans.

Clavdia is also the danger coming from the East ( in a Spenglerian sense ) bringing with her idleness, laziness and other inhibitors to action.

She has the effect of a drug on Hans. Drugs in those days were mainly opium. And Opium comes from Afghanistan, Kirghisistan, pakistan...

Hans infatuation with Clavdia does not go unnoticed and jealousy rises. There are others suitors for Clavdia and... for Hans


A major Freudian theme is the duality of the sexual attraction ( Eros ) and the attraction to death ( Thanatos ). Both are hinted at, the first moment Hans enters his room nr 34 ( 3 + 4 = 7 )
Tous - les-deux is the symbol for death. The cavorting couple in the next room is Eros.

Hans is so fascinated by death that he gets closer and closer to it : first he shows sympathy to the dying, then he is present at the moment they expire. He experiences near - death himself and finally in an eerie and upsetting scene Hans even crosses the border of life and death and regrets it bitterly.


Settembrini does not like things Eastern, including Clavdia Chauchat who he insinuates to be the cause of Hans not going back to Hamburg to start his career. Eastern thinking leads to idleness and inaction.

HAns will not come out of this ordeal more intelligent than before. It is his attitude towards all these grand ideas which will change

Hello L. !

You said : Are any of these views Mann's views?

Absolutely not ! This was an error critics made in the beginning : trying to establish who of these two resembles Mann most. Although Mann has confirmed that he leans more to the side of Settembrini, one cannot see Settembrini as the fictions Mann.

Remember that I said that all views have a bad side, Settembrini's liberalism leads to inaction ( see Europe today in their position towards Irak, iran and Afghanistan ), Naptha's views are shortcuts to Hitler and Stalin.

Nobody is right. Everybody has good points, everybody has bad one's. Poor Hans in the middle has to avoid all the cliffs.

We come now to another famous and interesting theme : The community on the mountain is a microcosm of Europe with all it's conflicting ideas just before it collapses into that horrible war to end all wars : World War 1

Snow is a pivotal chapter. Hans has his near death experience and decides to live. His dream has shown him the barbarity at the core of all civilized societies ( the witches ) whatever the philosophical discussion.


hello L.,

If I have found in you a fellow admirer for the Magic Mountain, I will be very happy.