Sunday, October 2, 2011

MM. Basecamp briefing 3

Welcome to the International sanatorium Berghof, to where the rich but unhealthy people flock in a desperate attempt to cure themselves from that dreadful disease: Tuberculosis.

Recline in the easy chairs of the salon, look around and savour, get hypnotized by the slow rhythm of the Sanatorium’s activities, listen to the gossip, flirt, watch people…watching people from a safe and comfortable position is that not one of the joys of life ?

One to watch very closely is Hans Castorp, it is his story after all, the young man who enters the Sanatorium on that summer day, 23d or 30 July 1907 ( a tuesday in any case), a 100 years ago. Hans is 23 years old, has finished his studies and is ready to start a professional career as an engineer, maybe even to start a family, to move on towards the next part of his life.

Hans Castorp’s stay in the Sanatorium is the story this book recounts. Hans is a delicate, a fragile child of life, a pampered scion of a wealthy family. Be kind to him, I know he can be irritating, even a bit annoying at times, especially in the eyes of a reader of the 21th century who has lost the vertue of patience, but don’t forget he is a younger one from another time, realy from another world.

Many things will happen to Hans and Thomas Mann has told his readers in Princeton that the book was some kind of  a coming of age story, a bildungsroman. So what we will witness is the building, the growing, the education of Hans. But you should not be fooled. Mann has written “some kind” of Buildingsroman and many critics now agree that with his famous irony, Mann has ended up with something that looks more like a parody of, rather than a bildungsroman.

Hans will meet a lot of people, but only a few, self appointed pedagogues, will have a big influence on him. 7 to be exactly, or should I say  4 important ones and 3 secundary. The 7 is omnipresent in the book for it has to remind the reader that there is more under that realistic veneer which is carefully laid over the text. Symbols do pop up all the time.

With its open manifold layers, its multifaceted lineament, its universal timeless quality, the book is bulging with meanings, enough for years and years of interpretative pleasure. But for this first reading I would suggest, although anyone is free to do whatever he or she wants, to keep an eye on only a few aspects of Hans’ education.
While the commentator TJ. Reed saw in the MM a spiritual biography, a confession and apologia, an intricate allegory, a kind of historical novel, an analysis of Man and a declaration of principle for practical humanism, I shall stick to only a few themes during this first reading. Let me suggest the five most obvious ones, the ones you should keep an eye on when reading the book for the first time.

But again, if other things attract your attention, please share them with us, for nothing must be done but everything can be done.

The five themes, I’ll keep a track on in the reading threads are:

1° The Buildingsroman.

Hans will meet different people who will all attempt to educate the young man. And he will also do things and experience new emotions which will have an influence on his character. A part of this education is political and you will see that the questions which will arise are as valid today as they were a100 years ago. After reading the brothers Karamazov with some of you, I have come to the conclusion that Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece must have influenced Thomas Mann for I feel somewhere that the discussions on the mountain are in a sense a sequel to the discussions which we heard in the village of Skotoprigonyevsk. While Jesus is not present anymore on this Parnassos, the Grand Inquisitor, a little bit disguised as you will notice, is still very much present..

Mann has also been so clever as to borrow the concept of the polyphonic novel from Dostoyevsky.
Mann too“Creates a set of characters, each endowed with a distinctive voice and worldview, who are pitted against one another in an open ended dialogue” The attentive reader should easily recognize these different voices and from their interaction draw his conclusions about the validity of their statements. Like in real life all voices and opinions are fully valid and there is no “authorative authorial voice” to arbitrate. This is the reason why people will keep discussing about the lessons Hans has learned for many years to come.


Mann experienced first hand what it meant to be in a sanatorium. His wife Katia had to stay there for several months and her husband joined her from mid may to mid June 1912. It was a world removed from social and professional obligations, a world removed from time itself and an imediate inspiration for his next book which he started to write shortly after his visit to Davos.

After "Death in Venice", Mann intended to write a "short satyr play in which the fascination for death was to presented with a comic twist"! By August 1915 he wrote to Paul Amann that he was writing " a story with pedagogic and political overtones, in which a young man comes up against the most seductive of powers, death, and runs the gauntlet, in a comic-gruesome manner, of the intellectual polarities of Humanism and Romanticism, progress and reaction, health and disease...." and he finishes with "the bias leans rather toward the side of sympathy with death" 

The War  had not started yet when he wrote these lines but in october 1915, just after finishing the Hippe chapter, Mann put down his pen for four years...By then, Death was all over Europe...

Mann' s attraction to death, according to Hannolore Mundt, an expression of his lifelong denunciation of a conventional bourgeois existence, brought him back to the writing table after the war.
Mann himself  knew that his morbid fascination with death was more an uncanny magnetism than an arbitrary gravitation, repulsive yet inescapable.

Mann himself was not the only one fascinated with Death. It ran in the family. His two sisters committed suicide, Carla in 1910 and Julia in 1927.

His son Klaus killed himself on May 21, 1949

And so, when you follow Hans strange fascination with death, this queer "dance macabre" which will unfold in front of your eyes, you should not only be puzzled, but worried too.


With Thanatos comes Eros. With the leisure comes pleasure! Like the fascination with death, Eros too and especially "forbidden" love is an expression of decadence and again like this fascination with Death, our "animal urges" challenge the healthy conventional world of conformity and repressive morality.

Mann's "locked-up black dogs" can clearly be heard "barking in the cellar".

Geography of the mind

There are a lot of geographical locations mentioned in the pages of the MM. Unsurprisingly they have a strong symbolic meaning. Together they form a coded representation of the West European mind, a representation of how Mann saw the world in those days before the world wars. Drawing this map is a difficult interpretative exercise and you need to know quite a bit of the philosophers who were contemporary to Mann: Spengler, Nietszche, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck...While it is not essential for understanding the book, it remains an exciting secondary exercise to find out just what more Mann was trying to tell us.

5° Time

Finally the MM is a dissertation about time. While the days at the Sanatorium Berghof are meticulously orchestrated, the patients live in a timelessness, a kind of weird eternity of endlessly revolving cycles.

The subject of time is not only a philosophic discussion point, it shapes the novel in a way never experienced before in literature.
The subjective way how we experience time is mirrored in the structure of the novel. It is one of the most innovative aspects of the MM. When everything is new and exciting, the time Hans experiences, is slowed down through detailed descriptions. When Hans gets into the routine, time starts slipping through our fingers and flows faster and faster until our next rude awakening.

There is much, much more to analyze and to study within the pages of Mann’s book: the relation of Art and Science for instance, the state of Europe, Humanities, Music, Wagner, homosexuality, psychoanalyses, dreams etc, etc. The realistic style, with which Thomas Mann lulls us into stupor, is a mere veneer. Yes, everything is named and described, like Hans equipment, his book, his cane, his cigars, his hat, his plaid but Mann loves to play with symbols and everything doubles up as something else: not only as a phallic symbol, like pens and cigars and thermometers, but also more abstract ones ; numbers, music, colors and so on.

Together with his very distinctive ironic style it gives the novel an extra depth of many levels which creates an expectation, after each read,  that there is even more in the pages than what you noticed ....