Monday, March 5, 2012

...and in his heart a deathwish.

Orpheus in the Underworld by Henryk Siemiradzki ( 1880 )


La mort est bien le bout, non pourtant le but de la vie
Michel de Montaigne

I call the classical what is healthy
and the Romantic what is sick
Goethe in 1829

‘His case is so very strange and painful, such skill, charm,
 cosmopolitanism, and in his heart a deathwish.’
Mann, on his son's suicide, in a letter to Herman Hesse





The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

1. Intro

I once half-jokingly told my wife, that on the fatal day that they would box me up, she should not forget to put a book into the coffin before the lid was closed. Unimpressed, she asked me if I had a specific book in mind. “Yes, I had, Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, “the Magic Mountain”.

While she had not been surprised by my macabre request, my wife was certainly taken aback by my choice. The Magic Mountain was a book, which I had always carried with me, heavily thumbed and annotated, and in which she had seen me reading and re-reading many times. Would I not prefer something I had not read yet, for my long voyage into Eternity?

It is true that my enduring fascination with the story of Hans Castorp, the main character of Mann’s novel, is not unlike the enchantment this young man experiences when he discovers the “Berghof”, a TBC – sanatorium in Davos, high up in the Swiss Alps. Hans has taken the opportunity of his summer holiday to briefly visit his cousin Joachim Ziemmsen who is following a long cure to recover from a nasty TBC infection. While Hans Castorp initial intention is to stay for only three weeks with his cousin, he will in fact remain, mesmerized by the world of the Sick and Dying which he discovers within the medical facility, a full seven years on the mountain!

If the story is so straightforward, whence from then comes this attraction? Why has the “Magic Mountain” invited several re-readings? Why indeed, each time I flip the last page, am I tempted to start all over again?



2. Complexity



Despite the simplicity of the plot and Mann’s inviting realistic style, the Magic Mountain is a complex book.

Like other Modernist Masterpieces, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain can be read on many levels, understood in many ways. The book is multilayered, multifaceted, multileveled. It is littered with fluctuating symbolic meanings and mythological references. Its roots dig deep into classical, biblical and literary references. It hints at famous operas and popular songs, geopolitical and historical facts, philosophical discussions and scientific references.

On top of that comes Mann’s famous free play of irony which gives everything a double meaning, turns everything into another perspective, so much so, that at the moment we think we grasp the book, the novel concludes with a paradox, an open ending which leaves us wondering and lures us back to the first sentence.

Rodney Symington in his book Thomas "Mann’s The Magic Mountain: A Reader’s Guide", quotes the writer on how to enjoy his huge book:

“I believe that the peculiar construction of the book, it’s composition, results in heightened and deepened pleasure for the reader if he goes through it a second time – just as one must be acquainted with a piece of music to enjoy it properly. Musical composition – I have already mentioned in connection with earlier works that the novel has always been for me a symphony, a work of counterpoint – a thematic fabric in which ideas play the part of musical motifs. This technique is applied to The Magic Mountain in the most complex and all-pervasive way. On that account you have my presumptuous suggestion to read it twice. Only then can one penetrate the associational musical complex of ideas. When the reader knows his thematic material, then he is in a position to interpret the symbolic and allusive formulae both forwards and backwards”

In his essay: “Transfiguration in Silence: Hans Castorp’s Uncanny Awakening”, a key reading in my comprehension of the novel, Joseph Lawrence, argues that a good understanding of “the Magic Mountain” goes beyond deciphering the multitude of hidden symbolic meanings. To understand Mann’s intention, Lawrence says, one needs to understand the lived reality that unfolds beyond the text more than to merely execute the academic exercise of uncovering the meanings of the multitude of symbols. There is no way to prepare for this: reading between the lines, according to Lawrence, is a skill taught by life itself.

The complexity thus is part of the fun. Rather than being an obstruction to a full enjoyment, that same recondite content turns the Magic Mountain into a treasure trove of cultural, political and philosophical subjects. Reading Mann’s novel is an interpretative feast, pure literary enjoyment and very rewarding to the inquisitive and interested literati. The “Magic Mountain” is without doubt a novel that will remain a choice subject for many generations of literary critics and readers.

Still, more often than not, because of that same complexity, the reader gets lost in an imbroglio of arcane interpretations. There are many possible understandings of the “Magic Mountain”, each one as valid as the next one. Part of the problem is that Thomas Mann himself, in front of his Princeton audience, explained his book as a “Bildungs roman”, a coming – of – age novel. This remark, ironically meant or not, has confused both critics and readers alike and turned the exercise of interpretation, the understanding of the Magic Mountain, into a guessing game about “what Hans has learned” during his seven year stay on the Mountain. Instead of clarifying things, it has been the reason of more misunderstandings and misinterpretations.



The “Magic Mountain” opens with a journey. Hans Castorp, presented to the reader as an unassuming or ordinary young man (depending on which translation you are reading), is sitting on a train, travelling from his native city of Hamburg up the Alps. We are in the summer of 1907 and Hans has just successfully finished his studies as an engineer. A job awaits him at the shipyard of Thunder und Wilms, but before he enters his professional life, as said, Hans has decided to visit his cousin. Joachim, a young officer, has interrupted his military training because of health problems and entered the Sanatorium six months earlier to get rid of his TBC infection.

Hans Castorp is a sensitive young man and the long voyage does him no good. The chasms the puffing train are crossing are too deep, the climbs are too high, nature is too weird, to be merely a journey up the Alps. Soon enough, and after the reader has accustomed himself to the symbolic depths of this novel, he realizes that the young man, rather than journeying up the Alps, is travelling up a mythical mountain, terrible heights more alike to Tännhauser’s Hörselberg, Faust’s Brocksberg or even Mount Purgatory from Dante’s Cosmology.



3. What is it about ?

So, what is the Magic Mountain about?

The Magic Mountain is about Death. Or rather, because as Lucretius told us, we cannot experience death, it is about living with Death. Living with the knowledge of our own Mortality. It is about Death as something to laugh with; as something to be scared of. It is about Death which brings us emotions like sorrow, fear and compassion. It is about Death as in suicide, Death as in Death wish, Death even as in the orgasmic “petite mort”. It is about Death as in infertility, as in impotence, as in stasis and in stupor. It is about Death high in the mountain: petrified, frozen, barren. It is Death as in terror, as in murder, as in cannibalistic savagery. It is about the decadent fascination with Death, the romantic Liebestod, it is about social silence and political extremism, and it is even about the carnage on the battlefield…

Paradoxically, the Magic Mountain is about Live too. Mann hastened to reasure his readers by saying that “An interest in death and illness, in the pathological, in decay, is merely a kind of expression of an interest in life, in humanity,[...] ; anyone who is interested in the organic, in life, that person is also interested in death; and it could well be the theme of a Bildungsroman to show that the experience of death is, in the final analysis, an experience of life and that it leads one to humanity”.

Once introduced to the world of the Sanatorium, we understand that Hans Castorp has not only travelled up a Mythical Mountain, but that he has at the same time descended into the underworld. For the world Hans encounters at the sanatorium, is the world of the terminally ill, the “Moribundi”, people hanging between life and death. Thomas Mann confirms this understanding of the Sanatorium as some kind of Mythological Underworld, when he gives the doctors overseeing the patients the nicknames Minos and Rhadamantus, the two gate-keeping judges of the underworld. It is safe to conclude that Hans’s voyage mirrors Dante entering the underworld realms of the Inferno and Purgatory. Hans effectively is a new Odysseus, another Orpheus.

Even if Death permeates the novel, I want to add immediately that the Magic Mountain is not a sad or gloomy book. On the contrary, like in real life we are protected from the doom of our conscious mortality by the many joyful distractions offered by Life. And truly, there is much distraction and much fun at the Sanatorium. There is for instance much pleasure in “people – watching”. Mann’s biting ironic pen brings to life the many patients who inhabit the Sanatorium. Hans Castorp will meet a handful of characters, who directly or indirectly try to influence his thoughts and deeds. People like Ludovico Settembrini, the Italian liberal Humanist or his counterpart: the reactionary romantic, Leo Naphta, an unlikely combination of Communist, Jesuit and Jew. There is also the sensuous and beautiful Clavdia Chauchat, the inarticulate but majestic Dutch Planter Pieter Peeperkoorn and finally there is Hans Castorp’s own cousin, the disciplined Lieutenant Joachim Ziemmsen.

Mann has endowed each of these fine-drawn characters with a distinctive voice and worldview and he pits them against each other to form an open ended dialogue. The attentive reader will easily recognize these different “voices” and from their interaction draw his own conclusions about the validity of their statements. All voices and opinions are fully valid and there is no “authorative authorial voice” to arbitrate.

That Mann had the intention to write about Death, he confessed in a letter to his friend Paul Amann. His new novel, he said, would be about a young man who would come up against the most seductive of powers: Death. The Magic Mountain, Mann added, was meant to be a short satire play in which the fascination for Death was to be presented with a comic twist. The fascination Mann was speaking about was one of two decadent streaks he had recognized in himself. One was his repressed homoerotic inversion which would be the subject of his novel “Death in Venice”, the other was his strange attraction to Death. This morbid attraction, according to Hannelore Mundt, an expression of his lifelong denunciation of a conventional bourgeois existence, ran tragically in the family. Two of his sisters committed suicide, Carla in 1910, Julia in 1927. Two of his sons killed themselves. Klaus in 1949 and Michael, the youngest of six, in 1977.

Despite the many digressions on Time, The Magic Mountain is not “about” Time. While there are quite a few “asides” on this subject, about for example the difficulty to define it and how its “length” changes through the subjectivity of our perception, Time in this book is nothing less than another symbol of Death. It is the irreversible flow of senescence, driving us towards our finale rest. The classical representation of Time remains that of the old man wielding his scythe. Time however is structurally very important and it was a main conceptual challenge for Thomas Mann. He wanted and succeeded to instill within the reader the same impression of relativity of time, as was experienced by Hans Castorp and the other patients of the Sanatorium. In the beginning of the book, when everything is still new for Hans, time passes very slowly, hour by hour so to speak. As his stay becomes longer, time becomes shorter, hours become days, days become months, rushing past at an increasing speed. In the beginning, the reader can keep track of passing time, in the last part of the novel, the notion of time has completely blurred.



The backbone of the novel, the central axis so to say, is thus made up by Hans’s fascination with Death. “The seduction of Death” as Mann named it. While it is never clearly expressed as such, as the story of Hans Castorp unfolds, we see him gravitate, in broad swirls of an eerie dance macabre, closer and closer towards Death.



To illustrate this morbid fascination, suffice to quote Hans’ admiration of the black dresses he remembers from the Don Carlos opera. It is according to him, (and he remembers the traditional Calvinistic attire of his grandfather), “the only proper colour to dress”. “Death and mourning would permeate everyday of life”. Hans finds that there is something respectable about dying. He adds: “…I always keep death in mind – that’s how I’d like it, that would be moral”. It irritates him that people around him seemingly do not take death serious. For a lot of the patients, the easy life at the Sanatorium, rather than being a place of mourning or a convenient “waiting-room” to prepare one-self for dying, is an excuse for a debauched life – drinking, betting, flirting, and cavorting.



Hans fascination for Death is remarkable, for Death is no stranger to Hans; the poor young man has already been orphaned three times, and this already at an early age. He has lost his parents and then the Grandfather who took care of him. Still, when Hans arrives at the Berghof, Death, for him, is still a weird and abstract notion. When his cousin Joachim recounts how, during winter time, the bodies of the deceased are brought down from the mountain, on sleds to their grieving families, Hans nervously starts to laugh as if he heard something comical.



Once he is at the Sanatorium, and even if the management tries to keep Death out of view of the patients to spare their moods, Death becomes something closer, more real. When Hans walks through the corridors, he hears the ghastly terminal coughs from behind closed doors. On his arrival, he sleeps in a genuine death-bed in which a woman passed away only a few days earlier. The next morning, from the balcony of his room, he observes a woman clad in black, a mother fearing for the life of both her sick sons, a symbol of Sorrow, slowly striding through the garden, her steps in time with a (funeral) march that drift up from the village



There are also the stories Joachim and the others patients are telling him. Like the one about the poor Hujus girl, who is scared senseless when a priest enters her room, bringing her the Viaticum, the sacrament of the dying. The young girl already in the final phase of her dead throes fights back. To Hans’s surprise, such attitude is frowned upon by the community of the Berghof and doctor Behrens admonishes the poor child on her deathbed for not behaving properly.

In another scene, Hans overhears the ranting of a certain Herr Albin. Albin is showing to a group of excited women, a knife and a handgun, which he boasts always to carry with him. Reckless Albin is not afraid of Death, or so he says, and presents death as something one can inflict to oneself. This is what he plans to do, when it gets all “too much” for him. Death becomes a choice, something desirable, a solution to a problem bringing with it, a feeling of pleasurable surrender.



Hans starts to wonder about his relation with and his fascination for death. His morbid fascination culminates in the important chapter “Danse Macabre”, which takes place around Christmas, five months after Hans’s arrival. Out of a complicated spiritual need, Hans decides to challenge the attitudes and the opinions of both the Berghof Management and his fellow patients. Instead of being an accomplice in hiding the dying, Hans bravely decides to fight the prevalent egotism and visits the “Moribundi”, to try to bring them some comfort. Hans is going to embrace death.



He starts off with underscoring “…that a dying person deserves every kindness, every honour …” and that he has decided that, from now on, he shall show more concern about serious and moribund cases. The Cousins, nicknamed the Good Samaritans, by their fellow patients, set off visiting the dying in their rooms.



Surprisingly enough, while expecting “solemnity” in death, Hans only encounters exuberant Life. The visit of the dying adolescent Leila Gerngross, for example is seen, at least by the Mother, as a visit of “handsome cavaliers” who bring her daughter a “chance of flirtation”. The visit to Frau “overblown” Zimmerman is pure slapstick. The dying woman is laughing with everything and everybody; even with Hans Castorp’s funny face…No solemnity here either. At each deathbed it is Life that is the most remarkable, not Death. Hans and Joachim witness courage, stamina, heroism and even moral fall, like that of Natalie Malinckrodt who, once she understands she is dying, leaves husband and child and elopes with a young lover. But what impresses the cousins most, is the proud resignation and acceptance of Karen Karstedt, a brave young woman, a girl really with her 19 years. Hans and Joachim join her for a walk to a small cemetery and visit her newly dug plot.

There is no drama, no tears, no passionate denial of her imminent death.There is only silence and respect.



It is the Italian Settembrini, who acts as Hans mentor throughout the first part of the book, who warns the young man that his fascination for death is a wrong attitude.



“The only healthy and noble and only religious way in which to regard death is to perceive it and feel it as a constituent part of life…” he says. It is wrong to separate Death from Life, for if you separate Death from Life in a dualistic way, you create death as an idea. Death becomes a “force” in competition with Life. “It becomes grotesque, a wraith – or even worse”. Death becomes a “seduction”.



“As an independent spiritual power, Settembrini adds, death is a very depraved force, whose wicked attractions are very strong and which can, without doubt, cause the most abominable confusion of the human mind”. “Death’s kingdom is lust …it is an evil deliverance from morals and morality, from discipline and self-control…”



Still, after his “tour of the dying”, Hans’s spiraling towards Death is not over: Two central chapters, “Snow” and “A Good Soldier” bring him as close to Death as possible.



In “Snow”, Hans has a “near death” experience. The young man, who has been longing to be alone, goes skiing in the Mountains, recklessly all by himself. “It permitted him the solitude he sought, the profoundest solitude imaginable”, but the reader understands that it is a dangerous defiance of Death. Hans, as feared, gets caught in a snowstorm and loses his bearings. Blinded by the whiteness on all sides, lost and vulnerably under-dressed, he is in great danger of dying. Fortunately he finds some precarious shelter behind a barn and slips into a death-slumber. While his body goes numb, dangerous things are happening in his mind: “a merciful self-narcosis sets in…”. “The desire, the temptation to lie down and rest crept in his mind” and “all he had to do was to submit to it…”. The “it” is unnamable “Death”, the young man is about to die.



It is in this near-death state, that Hans has a vision. He sees an Arcadian world, a classic Mediterranean landscape. It is a happy scene, in which young, beautiful and healthy people interact with each other in a kind way. While his mind’s eye goes over this pretty scenery, he is suddenly attracted to another scene embedded in the happy one. In a more ancient, archaic Doric temple, a grueling scene takes place. Two witches are ripping a child apart and eat it “piece by piece, the brittle bones cracking in their mouths, blood dripping from their vile lips”…



This horrible scene tears Hans out of his mortal sleep. Ecstatically he wonders where the vision comes from and what it means. “It is our own eternal secret dream – about youth, its hope, its joy, its peace, …and its bloody feast”. Was this what Settembrini meant by “perceiving Death as a constituent part of Life?” he asks himself. Were these witches the wraths, the Italian warned him for? What was remarkable, was that the Sunny people, did not attempt to stop the horrible scene, they seemed to accept it in their midst. Hans wonders: “Were they charming and courteous to one another, out of silent regard for that horror?



Thomas Mann then draws his conclusion, and emphasizes it: “For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts”



Hans wakes up from his lethal slumber, the weather improves and he returns safely back to the Berghof. His dream is already beginning to fade. By the time he is back in the Sanatorium, he is no longer sure what his thoughts have been…



This near – death experience with its vision is immediately followed by the real deceasing of his cousin Joachim. Technically, Joachim is Hans double; he is the “other” Hans. His function within the novel is important enough, to dwell upon for a moment.



Remember that the reason Hans travels up to the Sanatorium of Davos, in the first place, is to visit his cousin. Joachim greets Hans at the railway station and we understand that the cousins, who have the same age, are rather fond of each other. They sit at the same communal table in the restaurant, take their walks together and in union undergo the admonishments of the likes of Settembrini, Naphta and Behrens.



Hofrat Behrens, the Sanatorium’s doctor, immediately spots the unity. When introduced to Hans, he identifies the cousins as the Dioscuri, the twin brothers Castor(p) and Polux, one mortal, one immortal, who spend half their lives in the underworld and the other half with the Gods on mount Olympus…



Other twins who come to mind, are that of “Sleep” and “Death”. A few critics have indeed identified Hans as the dormouse, the seven-sleeper who only wakes up and rubs his eyes in the very last chapter. If Hans is Sleep, then Joachim is his brother-twin: Death.

Joachim has an important role in the book. He dies. His death is the closest that Hans will get to Death without experiencing it himself. Joachim’s passing away, a dark epiphany for his cousin, is a poignant moment and a turning point of the novel. While it concludes this central narrative axis, Hans’s inquiry into Death, the story is not finished. Hans as we will see later, will be even so bold to cross the border of Life and Death.



Now let us go back to Mann’s central idea, so important that he emphasized it himself: “For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts”. Remember how the beautiful people of his vision, even if they were aware of the deadly horror in their midst, symbolized by the child – devouring witches, chose not to let this interfere in their aspirations and building of an ideal “good” world.



We now better understand Settembrini’s warning. Hans has indeed separated Life from Death. His morbid fascination with “Death” is the dangerous seduction which will cause the most abominable confusion in Hans’s mind. “Death’s kingdom is lust”, the Humanist predicted, because it frees, it delivers from morals and morality, it delivers from discipline and self-control…”



Man then, according to the writer, can assume two intellectual stances, take two attitudes to live his Life. He can either choose to grant Death dominion over his thoughts, what I shall call a Life - denying stance, or he can choose the opposite, a Life - affirming stance. What this exactly means, how both choices permeate every aspect of Life, Thomas Mann illustrates in two parallel developments: one describing Hans’s “love-affair” with Madame Chauchat and the other describing the “education”, he receives from the people with whom he interacts.



Love and Education form a second narrative axis, which overlay Hans Castorp’s quest into the essence of Death. It is all paradox from now on…



4. Love.



The first morning, as he is preparing himself for breakfast, Hans Castorp overhears the romping of his Russian neighbours. The thin walls between the rooms barely muffle the gasps, groans and sighs. Hans is shocked but he soon realizes that the Sanatorium is not only a place where people die, but also a place where people love. From platonic love to amorous escapades and erotic antics behind enamel doors, Love, in all its variations permeates the novel. Even in a sanatorium, this should not surprise us. Most of the patients have time enough on their hand and flirtations, adventures and even passionate love –affairs are a welcome distraction in this purified air.



The Magic Mountain has its Love story too, for young Hans’ attention is soon caught by the beautiful Russian Clawdia Chauchat. Although Clawdia is a married woman, she is alone at the sanatorium. With her animal looks, her narrow wolf eyes and prominent cheekbones, Clawdia is the universal woman. She is both Circe and Calypso when she puts a spell on Hans, she is Wagner’s Venus imprisoned in the Horselberg, she is Eurydice to be freed from the underworld, she is Goethe’s Gretchen, she is Lilith.



Under the worried eye of his cousin, and to the great amusement of his table companions, Hans falls in love with this Caucasian beauty, “head over heels” as the expression goes. Hans’ infatuation with the Russian woman is one of the most entertaining and funny parts of the novel.



Clawdia Chauchat is the un-confessed reason why Hans will stay on the mountain for seven years. The official reason is a “moist spot”, doctor Behrens detects in Hans lungs. Hans, to pass the time, has agreed to do a medical check-up, but on the first visit he is already diagnosed as ill. Mann leaves the question open if Hans is really ill or if the “moist spot” is symptomatic of something else. Is the doctor’s diagnosis reliable, or is it commercially tainted as Settembrini suggests? Does Hans stay out of compassion for his cousin or because he is seduced by the easy life at the Sanatorium? Yes all that, but the true reason Hans stays on the mountain is Clawdia Chauchat. She is the sorceress who will keep him on the mountain. Even after Hans erotic epiphany, when he has spent his “wild and wicked hour in the room of the Russian beauty, even after she has left and even when she returns many years later with another lover, will Hans remain ensorcelled by her.



Only one gentle soul, Ludovico Settembrini, Hans’s self-appointed pedagogue, is aware of the danger the young man is running. However we suspect that there is more than just pedagogic interest for the young man, the Italian, from the moment he encounters Hans, advises him to leave and to escape the Berghof as soon as he can.



“Since your stay here appears not to be good for you…how would it be, if you were to pack your things tonight ( and leave ). Settembrini foresees that Hans is going to waste his time at the Sanatorium and as a true Humanist, a great advocate of work and progress, he ushers Hans back to the real world, to do his duty as the promising engineer he is. But Chauchat’s narrow eyes have cast a spell on young Hans and he hesitates to leave.



Settembrini does not give up. First he recounts the story of a girl who lost all sense of reason and decided to stay on the mountain although she was not ill. Then his attacks are more direct. Settembrini compares Clawdia to Circe and warns Hans “ …you are not Odysseus enough to dwell here unharmed…”, “ you will walk on all fours…” “and soon begin to grunt…” Beware!



Clawdia is the second seductress, against which Settembrini warns Hans. The first one, remember, was Death. Is it the same seduction? It is difficult to assert so, surely Hans’s infatuation with Clawdia must be life affirming? Should indulging in a most passionate love affair not be the most life affirming action one can take? Is the erotic force, which draws individuals together to copulate, not reproductive Life itself?



Not necessarily! The attraction to the Slavic beauty is, at least according to Settembrini, Life-denying. Compare what the Italian said about Death with what he thinks of the Russian woman. “…Death is a very depraved force, whose wicked attractions are very strong and which can […] cause the most abominable confusion in the human mind”. “Death’s kingdom is lust, because it frees, it delivers…it is an evil deliverance from morals and morality, it delivers from discipline and self-control…”



It is the same with Clawdia, not only because of her person, but because of what she represents. “Asia is devouring us” Settembrini whispers to Hans, alluding to Clawdia’s looks and origins. “Tartar faces in every direction you look…” Hans’s infatuation for Clawdia is dangerous, because she represents “Asian degenerative forces” in the Spenglerian sense. “It is truly hideous the way you throw the months away...” Settembrini prays to Hans to remain civilized and not to let himself

be infected by the “idleness and barbarity” of the Mongolian Muscovites.



The Slavic woman hampers the young man to do his duty, she undermines his dynamism. Her Slavic spirit brings about a lethargy, a passivity which one can hardly name Life.



She is the cause that Hans will idle away his youth on the mountain and bring his development to a standstill. If Life is action in the name of progress, war against illness, ignorance and poverty, then Hans’ attraction for the beautiful Clawdia, is clearly life denying.



That Hans has another option in his attitude towards his Russian is illustrated by how Joachim behaves in the neighborhood of the equally beautiful Marusja. Remember that Joachim is the other Hans, and that there are a few interesting parallels in their development. Joachim functions as a development of “the other choice”, the other option. While Hans forgets about his “civilian” duty, Joachim, who stands as a symbol of discipline never loses his military duty from sight. Again when Hans indulges in his passion for la belle Clawdia, Joachim fights back his feeling for Marusja… and

when Joachim returns to the real world, Hans decides to stay at the Sanatorium.

Hans has ignored the warning.



5. Education



Education is the other major topic in the “Magic Mountain”. Hans’s story, Mann reminded his Princeton students, was supposed to be a Bildungs roman after all, lessons had to be learned.

Hans, is a young orphan and financially free of worries. He is presented to the readers as “a cup to be filled with wisdom”, a tabula rasa. As a free citizen, he is entitled to receive his education in the seven arts, the basic knowledge of the properly educated. Being an engineer Hans has had enough of the scientific curriculum of the quadrivium, but he misses the basics of the Trivium, the grammar, the rhetoric and the dialectic. It is this part of the education that Settembrini takes into his hands.



It is early in the story, while Hans and his cousin are resting near a brook close to the mountain path, that Ludovico Settembrini, introduces himself to Hans and his cousin. Mann paints his features carefully to make sure our first impression of this major character is the good one. Settembrini is introduced to us as Hermes, ankles crossed, his walking stick doubling as his capuducea. Settembrini offers Hans guidance. He will be the psychopomp, Hans’s guide into the underworld as well as his pedagogue. Settembrini is to Hans, what Virgil was to Dante.



Settembrini, soon demonstrates his rhetoric skills while developing his worldviews and admonishing Hans for falling in the claws of Clawdia, but it is when Settembrini meets Leo Naphta, and when Hans witnesses the many and very fierce political and philosophical discussions, that Hans truly gets a demonstration of Rhetoric skills. It is the many discussions between Settembrini and his sparring partner Naphta which has caused so many misunderstandings. For the Magic Mountain is not a political novel as such. Hannelore Mundt frames the novel too narrow, when she identifies the central question of the novel as : Can we put our trust in ideologies and orientations in a modern pluralistic world in light of all the terror, violence , and destruction they have engendered in the name of Humanism? The Magic Mountain is not about politics, philosophy or religion… It is again, about Death and how the two stances, the life-affirming or -denying attitudes imbue political standpoints, philosophic worldviews and religious choices.



Settembrini, finds in Leo Naphta, a terrible opponent. Naphta is the symbol of all that Settembrini loathes: Naphta is a Jesuit, a soldier of God. The verbal fights between Settembrini and Naphta represent Humanism against Romanticism, Progress against reaction.Naphta stands for extremism, political fundamentalism and fanaticism. He advocates restrictions of freedom, does not hesitate to use torture as a way to “uncover” the truth, he even sees war as a necessary cleaning of a decadent world. Naphta stands for all life-denying political options.

But it is in his religious choice, that Naphta’s true seduction with death as an idea comes through. It is without doubt Frederic Nietzsche’s harsch condemnation of Christianity as an embodiment of disgust and antipathy for life that Mann remembers.

There is no need to follow further in detail the discussions between Settembrini and Naphta. Suffice to say that Mann paints different ideological choices which can be summarized as a polarization of right against left, democratic versus dictatorial, religious versus non-religious. The topics of the discussions are as valid today as they were 100 years ago. Mann’s sympathy we guess goes for Settembrini’s humanistic views although he shows that both opponents in the heat of the discussions forget for what they stand for and sometimes even belie their own viewpoints. In any case, Mann’s conclusion could be summed up to keep the political middle-ground, but in a dynamic way and never ever to see violence as an option.

The duel which takes place between the two intellectuals, after Settembrini accepts Naphta’s challenge is a good résumé of their opinions. Settembrini, who regrets that he has accepted the duel, refuses to shoot and empties his pistol in the air. He refuses to kill and affirms his ideology. Naphta’s life –denying logic is self-destructive and the Jesuit in rage shoots himself.

6. Hans, a living dead?

It is in the seventh chapter, the last part of the book, that Hans truly enters the world of Death . That is after his own “dead” in the previous chapters “Snow” and “A good soldier”.

During the course of his story, Hans has shown, in more or less degree, all symptoms of a dying man. His breathing and his heartbeat became at moments irregular. He experienced lesser degrees of the Pallor Mortis (paleness), of Livor Mortis (decolouration), of Algor Mortis (lower temperature) and of Rigor Mortis (Stiffness). But that was still in some kind of ante-chamber of Death and it is only now, in these last chapters that Hans enters a state of stupor and apathy which is more akin to a dead organism than a living one.

Again it was Joseph Lawrence who drew my attention to Hans’s transformation. Indeed, throughout the course of his stay at the Sanatorium, the young man changes from an enthusiastic and inquisitive young man into a taciturn social reject, totally indifferent to life. In the last chapters Hans has become silent and most people, even the doctors and nurses, leave him alone. There is, the narrator adds, a certain philosophical negligence in his appearance. Hans has turned into some kind of a hermit, an anchorite who has followed his “via Mystica” to the end. His, is a transformation into silence, apathy and stasis, not unlike the lethal numbing of his cognitive functions he experienced in the snowstorm. Hans lives outside time by now. He carries no watch anymore and the calendars have disappeared from his room.

Mann confirms “This is life without time, care or hope, life as a stagnating hustle-bustle of depravity, dead life”.

Parallels with the myths of Orpheus and Ulysses visiting the underworld abound.

For instance, Hans, like Orpheus, finds his lost love, Clawdia, back in this underworld. True, she did not die, but the Russian woman did leave the Sanatorium, unannounced and rather brutally. Hans has mourned her absence since then. But even as she returns to the Sanatorium, she remains beyond his reach for she has taken place besides a God – like figure, the Dutch Planter Pieter Peerperkoorn. Regal in his appearance, terrible in his anger, Peerperkoorn, is nothing more than a parody of a God, impotent and dying, a wounded king.

Other parallels with the Orpheus myth follow: Music! A new gramophone has been installed at the Berghof and Hans masters himself over it. The whole chapter, devoted to music, resumes the main themes of the Magic Mountain. The Songs, operas and lieder, are all about a lost love, a reunion with the loved one in Death and a decadent attraction to the ever after.

Hans’s fascination with Death is not over and in an eerie penultimate chapter, our hero like a true Ulysses, crosses the border between live and death. Out of boredom, the young man will try one more experiment. During an occult séance, Hans tragically summons his cousin from the netherworld. The effect is sobering; seeing his gentle cousin appear from out of the world of death, Hans immediately regrets what he has done. Bitter tears flow and he can only mumble that he is sorry. Hans has gone one step too far.

The appearance of Joachim effectively concludes Hans dance with death, his dance macabre, by bringing the two strands of Love and Death finally together.

7. Conclusion: The grand Paradox, An awakening on the battlefield

At the end of that last, strange part of the Magic Mountain, and in the very last lines of that huge book, we suddenly find ourselves, far from the Mountain, in the middle of a genuine “carnival of death”. We are on a battlefield. A regiment of young German volunteers is advancing towards the enemy. Explosions left and right cause havoc in their ranks. In their midst, we recognize Hans Castorp marching with them, his heavy boots treading on fallen comrades. He sings a song.

Hans marching on the battle field, his falling and standing up, is basically Hans fighting himself back out of the world of the deaths, He truly wrestles himself out of the ground, out of the mud, tramples on the dead bodies under him, he moves, he advances, he sheds his stupor. Hans, with the strength of a philosopher – warrior fights himself back into the world of the living.

These last lines are not a conclusion. They describe an awakening. Hans is escaping his mountain. Unfortunately history has made him reappear amidst the living, in the most terrible of moments and the most awful of places.

“Is the Magic Mountain ending with a paradox?” we ask ourselves. Is this the conclusion of seven years celebrating Love and Life, the outcome of seven years of study and education? Can it be that a “coming of Age” – novel abruptly ends on the battlefield?

The ending of the Magic Mountain, this transition from one extreme to another has boggled readers and critics alike. It has been explained in different ways, for If Hans Castorp is the recipient of a philosophic education, then, from his final appearance on the battlefield, one should be able to determine at least what it is that he has learned. Expecting an answer from the Author, interpretation of the novel has turned into a guessing game of “which idea Hans has appropriated from which Pedagogue?”.

As the author himself does not give any hints, readers have to look at the clues at their disposal.

Has Hans finally woken up from his dreamy intellectual world, turned safely Bourgeois and taken up his responsibility to do his duty even if it is to fight for the Fatherland? Hans leaving the Mountain as a soldier seems to confirm this and could be endorsed by Thomas Mann’s own behavior as a very disciplined and dutiful citizen and his rejection of his earlier dangerous ideas.

Or, do we find Hans on the battle-field after seven years of learning, because of Mankind’s inherent savagery, a cannibalistic streak that makes us destroy what took us years of love and education to build, in an endless circle of building and destroying?

Hans Rudolf Vaget, in his seminal essay “Politically suspect” has identified the bloody carnage that serves as a coda to Hans’ story. It is the infamous battle of Langemarck, which took place on the 10th of November 1914. A whole battalion of of poorly trained volunteers, mostly students and youngsters, were easily gunned down as they marched towards ennemy lines chanting nationalist anthems.

“Will Love rise up from this carnival of death too?” Mann, in doubt asks.

Still, it is not one of the War songs that promise Victory, that Hans sings to himself as he advances, but Schubert's Lied Der Lindenbaum, the song that symbolized Death for him, his deep and dark German Romantic yearning for Death.

Even as he remembers the insight he attained when surviving his ordeal in the snow,“For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts”, we understand that all has been to no avail, his attraction to Death nullifying whatever he learned on the Mountain in all those seven years.


Hans, bravely advancing over mutilated corpses, disappearing in the fog of war, in the red glow of a genuine Gotterdammerung, ready to confront whatever the world throws into his path, is in Mann’s great book on Death, too rooted in his ancient German Romanticism to escape his fate. The same fate which await millions of his fellow countrymen.

2 comments:

  1. Brilliant piece on a brilliant book. Lots to chew on.

    ReplyDelete