Swans Commentary » swans.com April 23, 2012  



The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann's Monumental Quest (Part I)


by Raju Peddada


Monuments of Civilization: Analysis of Classics



"A Classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."
—Italo Calvino, 1923-1985

[Author's preface: Why did I select The Magic Mountain for this review? It's not a simple answer, but here's my rationale: unlike other seminal literary work that had been universally celebrated, and had elevated the cause of humanism, Mann's recondite work is an inner mountain conquered, which, even after three generations, challenges us to scale this literary Matterhorn, as if our own, and simply because it is there. Mann's work goads us to raise our sights and pursue something that may edify our slight grasp on life, and its mystery, that at times seems to float like the alpine mist over us, dissolving in that diffident, yet fulgid light. Thomas Mann, with his prodigiously fecund imagination, made his literary mark early, with his improbable "Buddenbrooks," joining the class of another German, Goethe, in the art of crafting a bildungsroman classic. The Magic Mountain, a dozen years in the making, is, for its aesthetic asymmetry alone, a canonical beacon that bridges abstract with empirical truths, and it also shatters conventional methodology in fiction craftsmanship. This review, and all the references herein, are based on the 1981 Franklin Library edition of the H. T. Lowe-Porter translation.]


(Swans - April 23, 2012)   In the middle to late 19th century, the sanatoriums of Switzerland, like the one at Davos, were at the apex of their financial health, catering to the folks with lung ailments, especially tuberculosis, often referred to as "consumption" back then. Patients, even if not beset with such maladies, often stayed months, in some cases years, in that languorous yet prescribed palliating microclimate. An unknown Robert Louis Stevenson was one such patient, who came to Davos, along with his wife and son, Lloyd Osborne, to dislodge his ailment.

Thirty-two years after Stevenson's stay, in the spring of 1912, another patient arrived in Davos for a similar treatment -- it was Katia Mann. But unlike Stevenson, Katia had Thomas Mann in tow, her husband, an acclaimed writer by then who soon set about soaking up the atmosphere at the sanatorium after he got diagnosed with a "moist spot" in his lung due to a bronchial cold. He declined any further stay after the treatment, and instead, set forth writing a novel with the Swiss sanatorium as its setting, called The Magic Mountain. Mann intended his latest "short" as a sequel to Death in Venice, but the story had its own agenda.

As it turned out, his creation "extended itself" into two volumes, published in 1924. It is reminiscent of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship for its wisdom-chasing protagonist. "Bildungsroman" is a Teutonic concept theorized by the polymathic German, Wilhelm Dilthey, who defined it as the story of an individual's struggle for the inner, as well as social, growth, and comes to terms with his purpose in life. The Victorian era produced another masterful exponent of this typology in Charles Dickens.

The story is simple, yet eerily complex. It has a brief beginning, a long middle, and an abrupt end. And, the seven-hundred pages is all about the "middle" seven years the protagonist, Hans Castorp, spends at the sanatorium after arriving to visit three weeks with his convalescing cousin. It is more about our hero's quest for reason within wisdom, his own humanism, and search for love. Melodrama it is not, but a horologically haunting, yet cerebral and ethereal journey of discovery.

Mann claimed that the insouciant lolling at the sanatorium grew on him, till he was "possessed by the shore less realms of thoughts" that imbibed him in intricate and convoluted ideas about the place, and the depiction of it. In his 1926 disquisition for the English speaking world, "Making of the Magic Mountain," he postulates on the creation's ability to guide the creator to new frontiers -- it resonates today more, as fantastic as it sounded back then. I concur with the notion that creativity induces a sort of anesthetic self-delusion in the creator that protects and isolates him from the reality, and makes it possible for him to conceive and realize things that are seemingly unattainable. Mann offers "...if a writer could visualize the whole novel from its start, with all the possibilities and impossibilities, and knew what it would turn out to be, he might never have the gumption or the determination to begin." Mann becomes a captive in a world of his own making, and, struggles to extricate himself, till he finds a way, after thirty-five score pages, to escape in that jolting final chapter, "The Thunderbolt."

I am always reluctant to touch the classics, often feeling that I would soil their pristine state of caring abandonment in my library. I read two to three contemporary fiction and non-fiction books, in between the classics. If it's anything like The Anatomy of Melancholy, then I would read something featherweight that could be devoured in two sittings, between every two hundred pages of Burton's dense musing and enigmatic hilarity. I made the mistake of picking up H. T. Lowe-Porter's translation of The Magic Mountain as an "in between" book. What seemed like a small hill, worth a cozy trek, turned into a mountain range, with valleys of profound abstractions and intellectual meanderings. Mann's epic was utterly resistant to cursory consumption; instead, demanded all your senses to be at their attentive best.

The Magic Mountain had been analyzed and critiqued in myriad perspectives since its release. Even the psychiatric journals pursued it with malicious vigor and self-serving interpretations. And ironically, Mann's book was the swan song for these types of sanatoriums. It seemed rather foolhardy on my part to venture forth on something that even the steeped analysts struggled to decipher -- a work that didn't follow the trajectory nor the predictable topography of modern fiction, but in inverse exoticism, led an esoteric osmosis of polymathic novelty in crafting its own author.

What is really the big concept here? If Tolstoy groped for the meaning of life, and Rousseau pursued the freedom of will and thought, what was Mann's goal? Is it farfetched to claim that he bridged the abstract with empirical truths? Many thinkers harangued on it: philosophy was analytical that separated reason from imagination, and precision from ambiguity. Plato wedged away literary-humanistic truths from philosophical truths by professing that human weaknesses and degeneration metastasized through literature: an impure source of truth that had no business fraternizing with pure truths. But, on the other side, fiction facilitated the empirical truth, which cannot be expressed adequately in dry philosophical prose. Plato was proved wrong by his own pupil, Aristotle, who presciently persuaded posterity that moral philosophy needed poetic novelty for the nuanced expression of its goals. David Hume also affirmed that truth and complex ideas cannot take hold without exposure to relevant sensory experience. Milan Kundera suggested that "The Art of The Novel... is not to transform the novel into philosophy; rather to bring to it a sovereign and radiant intelligence." I think this is exactly what Mann managed to do.

Mann invokes tropes of individuation in a work that skirts being demurely pedagogic and didactic through his alter ego, Settembrini's character, and his nemesis, Naphta. The polemics between these two characters provide an oscillating intellectual texture of recession and distention as a subtext of our own existential vicissitudes. Also, the author's syntax, the apt intonation, and the alliterative indulgences made for a precise, yet rhythmic narrative, dispatching any trace of tedium. Here are some evocative prose nuggets:

Chap. 2: "Grandpa," little Hans Castorp might say, standing on tiptoes to reach the old man's ear, "please show me the christening basin." And the grandfather, who had already pulled back the skirts of his long cashmere frock coat and taken a bunch of keys from his trouser pocket, forthwith opened the door of the glass case, whence floated odors odd and pleasant to the boy's sense.

You can almost hear a grandfather clock's tick-tock-tick-tock, and the chimes every half hour, in that morbid silence, somewhere in the mansion. This is the magic in Mann's unobtrusive and unassuming prose style, which manages to infer the passing of time, ever so subtly. Free lessons, folks!

That great-great-great-great -- what a hollow sound it had, how it spoke of the falling away of time, yet how it seemed the expression of a piously cherished link between the present, his own life, and the depth of the past!

It was this other aspect of death that made grandfather himself look so strange; not like grandfather at all, more like a wax doll, which death had put in place to be the center of all this pious and reverent spectacle. He who lay there -- or, more correctly, that which lay there -- was not grandfather himself, but a shell...

Chap. 3: Satana: "Malice, my dear sir, is the animating spirit of criticism; and criticism is the beginning of progress and enlightenment."

This is unequivocally a book in textures, versus being a book of the plot. Mann paints the protagonist, Hans Castorp, as an engineer on the cusp, an ordinary flatland bumpkin -- an anti-hero with humility and diffidence, who negotiates his surroundings, bridging the various contentions and well-devised tensions. Mann puts the onus on the reader to develop patience and persevere in following our hero's development. A naive and guileless man, in search of the elixir of life through the wisdom of listening, involvement, and ultimately, succumbing to the one thing that hews men: unrequited love. However, the grail pursued by our hero remains a mystery, which, is complemented, as much as it is exacerbated, by the conditions one must traverse, and in this excercise, discover the work's glory.

We are drawn to the intellectual pugilism like flies around light, like our hero, who actually facilitates it by his instigating queries, and more so with his naive refereeing. Settembrini is Mann, and our hero is us, and throughout the work, Mann forces us to take sides in this phrenic jousting. Here's one of Settembrini's eloquent rants:

Chap. 4: Necessary purchases: "Do not, for heaven's sake, speak to me of the ennobling effects of physical suffering! A soul without a body is as inhuman and horrible as a body without a soul -- though the latter is the rule and the former the exception. It is the body, as a rule, which flourishes exceedingly, which draws everything to itself, which usurps the predominant place and lives repulsively emancipated from the soul. A human being who is first of all an invalid is all body; therein lies his inhumanity and his debasement. In most cases he is little better than a carcass- "

The Magic Mountain is a resplendent hermeneutical creation. Mann invests an inordinate amount of energy in the narrative aesthetic: The textual, the topical, and the textural -- in the pace, the characterizations, the tensions and the releases, that seem precisely timed like an orchestra. Mann's tonality renders the verisimilitude into a horological device that tracks the protagonist through seven years of stations, outside and inside his psyche -- a sublime and translucent transmogrification from the objective to the subjective, and from material to immaterial. Soon enough, you are actually mingling with the whole cast of characters, throughout that chimeric milieu.

Mann's creation, for its allegorical and allusive cadence, is also a work of horological beauty, ironically like that of a Glashutte movement. Many chapters attest to this horological allusion, especially the first chapter, "Arrival," inferring time and its devolution; then, the last chapter, "The Thunderbolt," which issues forth the devastating finality of time's rapid dissolution, and its irretrievability, like Hans Castorp, in the fog of war.

In Part II, we will extend our exploration of Mann's philosophical as well as the creative metasis for his vast drama, and also enjoy his painterly prose throughout the work, the fundamental rationale buttressing his work as seen through the concepts of time, music, the heightening process, and the overall horological essence of his work.


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 23, 2012