Swans Commentary » swans.com May 7, 2012  



The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann's Humanistic Enterprise (Part II)


by Raju Peddada


Monuments of Civilization: Analysis of Classics



Naphta: "I am glad to see that despite your enthusiasm for freedom and progress, you have some feeling for serious things." Settembrini pocketed the affront.
—Two didactic characters from the book.

"Nothing is more painful than to be prevented by our physical, our animal nature from being of service to reason."
—Settembrini, in the chapter "Encyclopaedic"


(Swans - May 7, 2012)   Let us indulge in some facetious conjecture. Western theology proclaims that "God" created everything in six days, and took respite on the seventh; whereas, Mann took several years to create The Magic Mountain, suffusing it with an overwhelming and intimidating depth -- that almost all of God's proudest creation, humanity, finds it difficult to scale or fathom. As a matter of fact, Mann, represented by the rationalist-atheist Settembrini, often admonished humanity in his book for being led into the abyss of absolutism, and ignorance, by their "creator." Isn't that a tantalizing paradox?

The single staggering factor in evaluating The Magic Mountain is its unerring and understated beauty that resides in its philosophical and empirical engagements throughout -- so much so that the book seems to possess the volition to discern its own readers, or thwart any reader not willing to give his all. In an abstruse reversal, the book seems to employ Immanuel Kant's principle of the judgment of taste on its readers. "Gotta have taste to read moi!" Perhaps this is why Mann diffidently urges us to read it twice. And since it is a creation that had guided its own author, in being wrought, it might facilitate its own review as well, via Mann's didactic alter ego.

"Analysis as an instrument of enlightenment and civilization is good, insofar as it shatters absurd convictions, acts as a solvent upon natural prejudices, and undermines authority; good, in other words, in that it sets free, refines, humanizes, makes slaves ripe for freedom."

Let us dive into Mann's psyche to find, perhaps, what others might have missed. Is this possible -- can we discover something original? The word original gives me the shakes; what is original here may not be original in Mali or Mongolia. Nevertheless, scaling the mountain again is worth it, with the reassuring and consoling fact that every adventurer's climb is a fingerprint of authentic experience, and even if we stumbled on one tiny revelation for the reader, our mission would be accomplished. This is a book that may never succumb to a peripheral disquisition, as intellectual boulders within it would quash any adventurer who does not pay attention to the components of its literary topography.

There are staggered funnels through which Mann filters his long tale. One of the things he addresses is his ambition, when asked about what the impetus was behind his creation. He stated that "...ambition must not come before the work itself... the work itself must plant the ambition in its creator..." This perspective reverberates with a lot of creative folks. The Sistine Chapel is not something Michelangelo pursued; he actually, in many ways, tried to turn it down. Only after getting into it did any ambition take hold of Michelangelo, driving him to perfection. Ambition resides in passion, and passion is in the details. Mann's passion manifests in the observation and the articulation of the miniscule nuances of existence... even in the utterly mundane and simplest things. The author's work is an auscultatory passion revealed on the human condition. Here's an example:

"He loved his snuffbox -- it was a longish, gold-inlaid tortoiseshell one--and on account of his snuff taking, used a red pocket handkerchief, the corner of which always hung out of the back pocket of his coat. If this foible added a quaint touch to his appearance, yet the effect was only of a slight negligence or license due to age, which length of days either consciously and cheerfully permits itself, or else brings in its train without the victim's being aware."

Fine details on human dynamics populate the work, especially in chapters where our hero, smitten by Frau Chauchat, interacts with her and others in their dining room. Here's one scene, pregnant with our hero's infatuation, in Mann's diabolically alluring prose:

"The curtains have been drawn over the window and the verandah door, but somewhere there is a little crack, and through it the red gleam finds its way, not hot, but dazzling, and falls upon Frau Chauchat's face, so that she shields it with her hand as she sits talking with the concave countryman on her right. It is annoying but not serious, nobody troubles about it, probably not even the fair one herself. But across the dining room Hans Castorp sees it -- quiescent awhile, like the others. He examines the situation, follows the course of the ray of light, makes up his mind where it enters... Without a word he gets up and, serviette in hand, crosses over among the tables, draws the cream colored curtains so that they lap well over one another, convinces himself by a glance over his shoulder that the ray from the setting sun is shut out and Frau Chauchat is relieved, and with a air of equanimity goes back to his place... few of them ever noticed his act; Frau Chauchat, however, instantly felt relief, and turned round, remaining in that position until Hans Castorp had resumed his place and, sitting down, looked over at her, when she thanked him, with a friendly, rather surprised smile, and a bow that was less an inclination than a shoving forward of the head... His heart stood stock-still, it seemed not to beat. Only after the whole thing was over did it begin again, and hammered, and only then did he become conscious that Joachim had kept his eyes directed upon his plate... All this is the sheerest commonplace; but the commonplace becomes remarkable when it springs from remarkable soil..."

Mann explains a tiny nuance, quite significant in narrative value, in the interaction between Hans Castorp and his object of affection at the end of the first volume, when our hero makes a declaration of love to Madame Chauchat, "veiling its strangeness in the garment of a foreign tongue." This is a gem of an observation, used by Mann, which we all can corroborate from our personal experiences. He also, in his essay for the English readers, explained that a work like this was a concatenation of foibles that can be construed as tragic jest. In fact, Goethe once referred to his Faust as "This very serious jest." What is really astonishing is that The Magic Mountain, in two volumes, was an "odd entertainment," as touted by the author himself, released between the wars to an "economically harassed public" to huge acclamation despite its tragic overtones. Realism had come of age; it was didactic, and useful. Here's another example:

"... waiting means hurrying on ahead, it means regarding time and the present moment not as a boon, but an obstruction; it means making their actual content null and void, by mentally over-leaping them. Waiting, we say, is long. We might just as well -- or more accurately -- say it is short, since it consumes whole spaces of time without our living them or making any use of them as such... We might almost go so far as to say that, as undigested food makes man no stronger, so time spent in waiting makes him no older. But in practice, of course, there is hardly such a thing as pure and unadulterated waiting."

The Magic Mountain is apparently sustained by four distinct concepts, like the four sides of the pyramid at base -- is it by design, or is it an organic accident? I cannot bring myself to believe than any author would categorically base his novel on a literary theory or an academician's preconceived platform. Writing is an organic endeavor; it's a feeling that evolves like an amoeba as it pours forth from the author's mind onto paper. In which case, all theorizing and categorizing is nothing but armchair quarterbacking on Monday morning. However, literary analysis and categorization may be the way we can study the work and cogitate on the author's process and intent. But, I don't know any author who, over a drink, would say, "Well, I am going to start a bildungsroman classic today!" I can't imagine Picasso waking up one fine morning, throwing on a robe after lighting a cigar, and declaring "Man, I feel great this morning... maybe, I'll do a blue period piece just to tone down my exuberance." All pigeonholing is done in hindsight, an incontrovertible fact.

The Magic Mountain is a bland tragic novel of realism. It also happened to be, according to the author himself, cued on music and time, both intertwined and inseparable, which, we'll explore later. Nevertheless, there is another speculative yet acceptable basis for the work, and that is referred to as "Steigerung," or the "Heightening Process," a cultural process theorized and professed by the Austrian cultural philosopher, Rudolf Kassner (1873-1959). Enhancement, or Steigerung, as it is referred to, is really "alchemistic." An organic growth in a person based on the surroundings. Our benign hero, from the flatland, is an indifferent engineer, a scion from the affluent Hamburg society who is rather hermetic and who, in the Spa atmosphere of an enchanted alpine region, undergoes a heightening process that enhances his capacity to "let loose" and indulge in the adventure of the senses -- sensual, moral, and intellectual spheres. His is the story of the heightening process itself, through various means: interactions with Naphta and Settembrini, his readings, attention to the dying, experiencing snow, and being rejected in love... all heightening engagements.

Settembrini and Hans Castorp on the superiority of intellect and reason over material body:

"What have you against analysis? Nothing -- when it serves the cause of enlightenment, freedom, progress. Everything when it is pervaded by the horrible haut gout of the grave. And thus too with the body. We are to honor and uphold the body when it is a question of emancipation, of beauty, of freedom of thought, of joy, of desire. We must despise it insofar as it sets itself up as the principle of gravity and inertia, when it obstructs the movement toward light; we must despise it insofar as it represents the principle of disease and death, insofar as its specific essence is the essence of perversity, of decay, sensuality, and shame."

Thomas Mann wrote a philosophical novel. It is more about the journey, the process of living, the in-between, after birth, and before death -- the process of growing, about the means, and not the end. The Magic Mountain has a definite spine throughout the work, in the intellectual engagements between the triumvirate of Settembrini, Naphta, and Hans Castorp, on reason versus radicalism -- holding the whole thing together. There is also a revelation: Naphta, the radical idealist, kills himself, becoming a "martyr" for his idealism, and a "terrorist" for not succumbing to either reason or the concept of compromise. Does this sound familiar at all? Mann is prescient, almost clairvoyant, in giving us a glimpse of what intolerance and failing to compromise portends, almost a century before these things are common place.

"Do not forget that tolerance becomes a crime, if extended to evil." - Settembrini

At one level, the work is psychological, and at another, a philosophical meditation on the dissolution of time and the distortion of our memory. By today's standards, The Magic Mountain is an absolute rarity for its literary beauty and as a repository of ideas about the pervasive subjectivity in our existence, the illusory nature of truth, and the epistemological rationale behind intellect versus idealism and, the passion it elicits. Mann, through his work, approximated that truth, is not some "ethereal abstraction," but something we experience in the process of living. In Part III, finally, we will explore how Mann employed horological and musical synergies to craft his masterpiece.


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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
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art18/rajup53.html
Published May 7, 2012