Swans Commentary » swans.com May 21, 2012  



The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann's gift of beauty (Part III)


by Raju Peddada


Monuments of Civilization: Analysis of Classics



"Wisdom comes by disillusionment."
—George Santayana (1863-1952)

"Beauty is the bait which with delight allures man to enlarge his kind."
—Socrates (469-399 BC)


(Swans - May 21, 2012)   We are, invariably, in varying degrees, aesthetic beings. Natural beauty is an inscrutable intrinsic organic manifestation, in all living organisms at an atomic level, that makes it the indispensable intangible in procreation. David Rothenberg, professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, goes even further in his recent book Survival of the Beautiful, claiming that beauty is powerful, and that "society may have been too prudish to give sex such power as the guiding force behind all that natural beauty. Should Darwin instead have named this process aesthetic selection? Life is far more interesting than it needs to be, because the forces that guide it are not merely practical."

Good writing, through the ages, whether scientific or historiographical, had provided the intellectual grasp on our own humanism and our material surroundings, often transcending their own analytical limitations, and ascending to the status of literature --whether it is The Elements by Euclid written around 300BC, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius in 121AD, the Principia by Newton in 1687, or Darwin's On The Origins of Species in 1859. This brings me to the meadows of literature, which enables us our loftiest expression of beauty in the articulation of our condition and its pathos. It actually demands unfathomable subjectivity -- that infinite capacity for cogitation -- that is simply beyond the reach of any ideology or institutional analysis. I don't want to drag you all into aesthetics, nor any literary theorizing, but it wouldn't hurt to understand what constitutes real beauty, and the sublime, in the literary context.

Cassius Longinus (213-273AD), a Greek philosopher-rhetorician of the Neoplatonic School, a critical formulator of the "Sublime Treatise," said "... beautiful words are in very truth the peculiar light of thought." Longinus's treatise professes that great literature transports its audience, in identifying the aspect of the sublime in the "uncanny." Many modern aesthetes, from Shelley to Kant, also offer parallel conjecture, proposing that sublime is always a mystifying paradox: resplendently leaden, agreeable abomination, morbid exuberance, and as in the pleasure of melancholy. Owen Barfield, a visionary critic from England, extended, and added to Walter Pater's muse on the element of "strangeness in beauty." Strangeness or asymmetry stirs our aesthetic imagination, tantalizes our sensibilities, and arouses wonder, which Kant explains as something that defies representation and can only be felt. Unless we, as readers, are remarkably obtuse, lacking in perception and sensation, we would grasp that not only is The Magic Mountain imbued with a strange asymmetrical energy, it is also notoriously eloquent.

The Magic Mountain is really an odd creation. In its realism, it is cryptically surrealistic. It is antipodean in its sublime amalgamation: in the portrayal of decadence as a sickness, and sickness as something elevating, and the protagonist as its moderator. The strangeness of this realism -- a crypto realism, that is -- to the perceptive, is sublime. This strange sublimity permeates Mann's enigmatic work. Also, it's not about the book being accessible, it's about being rather "inaccessible," as if aloof, versus the conventional coddling of most books. This inverse resistance to the reader is its allure, an incongruity that is unsweetly beautiful. Not only do I understand what Longinus, Barfield, Burke, Shelley, and Kant were trying to convey, but I concur with their philosophical approach to the concept of the sublime and beauty entirely -- it had been my "absorbing" methodology, without ever having known these aesthetic maxims, till relatively late.

We have it from Porphyrius. An absurd remark, if you like. But the absurd is the intellectually honorable; nothing can be more pitiable than the reproach of absurdity, leveled against the mind as it asserts its dignity against nature, and refuses to abdicate before her." Chap: Encyclopaedic- Settembrini and Castorp.

The flow of this tale, with barely any subplots, can be visualized and felt like an orchestra, which is rhythmic and even, without much deviation, but for an occasional clashing of the cymbals -- palliative music. The chapter "Fullness of Harmony" is where Mann, vicariously through Castorp, offers us the affect music had had on his narrative cadence. Mann, in his own words: "I intentionally used the word 'composed' in referring to the writing in the book... for music always had a strong formative influence upon the style of my writing." It also conjured another image: that of a gigantic steam-engine clock, full of complex interdependent gears, big and small, surprisingly quiet, that make every part chime with purpose. Mann's prose is akin to the mechanical beauty of a steam engine -- beautiful, yet intimidating with its power and depth, propelling us forward through the valleys of contention. Every gear represents every character in Mann's theater of interaction with a mechanical irony, like the flange moving backwards in order to effect a forward movement of the piston.

The crafting of The Magic Mountain on the intertwined musical and horological armature is indeed an ambitious undertaking, something from which even most accomplished biographers and memoirists would cringe. And for that matter, there are not many books that can pull you in to experience that insidious expenditure of time, as you meander along with the characters, bound in the routine of devolution. I had experienced this magic once before in that contemporary masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Allusion is the tool Mann uses in a grand manner: the sanatorium is a gigantic horological orchestral device, and the characters in the tale, like well-placed instruments, vanish when their time is up, just like Castorp does suddenly... and, like we will all do eventually. Every other chapter is a spatial metaphor, exorcised by the liquidation of time as we move along. Distant rooms, patients, and sounds become nuances to the inevitable: You can hear someone coughing, but never see him; you hear him coughing regularly, day after day, becoming increasingly phlegmatic, then suddenly you don't hear him anymore. The irony of time:

"It's an old story," he said. "At a place like this, two people, or two families, can live weeks on end under one roof, without speaking. But some day they get acquainted, and take to each other, only to find that one of the parties is on the point of leaving..." Chap. Changes- Hofrat to Castorp.

Mann prods us rather insistently, as if somehow aware of our dissolving attention, on the passage of years in the spatial context, on pages 72, 109, 110, 246, 349, 541 and 542. The chapter "Changes" begins on page 349, with this rumination in Castorp's mind:

"What is time? A mystery, a figment--and all powerful. It conditions the exterior world, it is motion married to and mingled with the existence of bodies in space, and with the motion of these. Would there be no time if there were no motion? No motion if no time? We fondly ask. Is time a function of space? Or space of time? Or are they identical? Echo answers. Time is functional, it can be referred to as action; we say a thing is 'brought about' by time. What sort of thing? Change! Now is not then, here is not there, for between them lies motion. But the motion by which one measures time is circular, is in a closed circle; and might almost equally well be described as rest, as cessation of movement -- for the there repeats itself constantly in the here, the past in the present. Furthermore, as our utmost effort cannot conceive a final limit either to time or in space, we have settled to think of them as eternal and infinite -- apparently in the hope that if this is not very successful, at least it will be more so than the other..." Chap. Changes -- in Castorp's mind.

In any great work there will be a central beam, where the author balances the ironical tension, paradox, and dichotomy. In The Magic Mountain, Mann manages to articulate the binary aspects of existence through his characters: on one end his support-characters like Joachim, Frau Chauchat, Hofrat Behrens, Peeperkorn, Dr. Krokowski, Elly Brand, and others are the "articulators" of the temporal aspects of existence, while Settembrini, Naphta and Castorp pull the other way, on larger, contentious universal issues like radicalism versus reason, intellect against ignorance, or science's answers to the church's questions, life and death, even the anatomy of the body, and the alchemy of love and its rejection. In fact, I stumbled into more universally contentious issues, in Mann's redoubtable early 20th century fiction, than I could possibly have expected:

"Copernicus will go down before Ptolemy. The heliocentric thesis is meeting by degrees with an intellectual opposition which will end by achieving its purpose. Science will see itself philosophically enforced to put back the earth in the position of supremacy in which she was installed by the dogma of the church."

"...What about the unfettered quest for truth? Truth, my dear sir, so indissolubly bound up with freedom, the martyrs in whose cause you would like us to regard as criminals upon this planet but who are rather the brightest jewels in her crown." Chap. Of the City of God, Naphta and Settembrini.

"... death was neither specter not mystery. It was simple, acceptable, and physiologically necessary phenomenon; to dwell upon it longer than decency required was to rob life of its due." Chap. Operationes Spirituales, Settembrini to Naphta.

"... this world of limitless silences had nothing hospitable, it received the visitor at his own risk, or rather it scarcely even received him, it tolerated his penetration into its fastness, in a manner that boded no good; it made him aware of the menace of the elemental, a menace not even hostile, but impersonally deadly. The Child of civilization, remote from birth from wild nature and all her ways, is more susceptible to her grandeur than her untutored son who has looked at her and lived close to her from childhood up, on terms of prosaic familiarity." Chap. Snow. Snow's rumination on Castorp.

"Stupid -- well, there are so many kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst." Chap. Myheer Peeperkorn.

We are products of our own discernment. Our lives are defined by the concatenation of judgments we made, and continue to make. In fact, Kant, the preeminent authority on such matters, puts it this way: "... it is the faculty of estimating the beautiful... judging beauty by the means of imagination... that is agreeable which the senses find pleasing in sensation. Finally, and reluctantly, what makes The Magic Mountain beautiful -- for that matter, people beautiful? Isn't it their personality, their words? Well, it is nothing different with Mann's creation, which seems to possess a personality in its humanism and prose:

"... who with pedagogic dogmatism characterized metaphysics as the evil principle..." Chap. By the Ocean of Time.

"The defeat of the feelings, their overthrow when confronted by life--that is impotence." Chap. Vingt-et-un.

"... have we kept company with intellectual lights like Naphta and Settembrini, instead of surrounding ourselves with incoherent Peeperkorns!" Chap. Mynheer Peeperkorn.

"I am speaking of the mystery of personality, something above either cleverness or stupidity, and something we all have to take into account: partly to try to understand it; but partly, where it is not possible, to be edified by it. You are all for values; but isn't personality a value too?" Chap. Myheer Peeperkorn.

Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain is magnificent fiction, with an abstract personality, whose intellectual mysteries will keep the reading and academic posterity guessing for a long time to come. And every time we read it, we are assured of stumbling onto another perspective. Reminds me of what Italo Calvino once said about good books: "A Classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."


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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 May 21, 2012