Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Herr Settembrini hauled him over the coals quite properly and managed to firm up his conscience at least temporarily extracting something like a promise never again to participate in such horrors. “Pay attention,” he demanded, “to the human being inside you, my good engineer. Trust it clear and humane thoughts and abhor this wrenching of the brain, this intellectual swamp. Illusions? Secret of Life? Caro mio! When the moral courage to decide and differentiate between fraud and reality begins to melt away, that marks the end of life itself, of formed opinions, of values, of any improving deed, and the corruptive process of moral skepticism begins its awful work.” Man was the measure of all things, he added. Man had an inalienable right to make knowledgeable judgments about good and evil, about truth and the sham of lies, and woe to anyone who dared confound his fellowman’s belief in that creative right. It would be better a millstone were hung about his neck and here were drowned in the deepest well.

I read The Magic Mountain last year and had I had my act together, would have used it for the Back to the Classics 2020 challenge.  But it took me seven months to read it because I read it in German, which meant I had to stop and look things up many, many times. I also acquired the English translation for those passages that were particularly convoluted; where it was more than just a vocabulary word standing in my way.  It is hard for me to not want to “understand everything” when reading in German.  I have to remind myself that I don’t always understand everything in English either - hello Henry James!  I think that Mann used about 5 different words to say “mountain side” or “slope”, for example, not one of which I knew. I read the first third fairly enthusiastically …then let it languish and read only sporadically for months until I made myself read the final third in a go in December 2020.   I think though, in the long run, it wasn’t a bad idea to take such time to read it. It is a book that has a lot of complex ideas which take time to sink in. 

Reese at Typings asked me to review it anyway, and so here goes nothing. 😃 The plot of The Magic Mountain is very easy to sum up. In the first decade of the 20th century, Young Hans Castorp goes to visit his cousin at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and doesn’t come down for seven years.  But of course, it is about much more than that. Hans physically stays on the mountain, but his mind travels widely. This is a novel of ideas where Mann uses the characters to express various philosophies that interest him and presumably the reader. The blurb on the English translation I used by John E. Woods suggests that the characters in the sanatorium are metaphors for Europe on the brink of the First World War.  That is no doubt true, but I couldn’t help but also feel that the book was taking the pulse of the time it was published in 1925. Of course, I have the benefit of knowing what is coming historically, but much of the text felt prophetic to me about the upcoming reign of European fascism and I also believe the arguments and ideas expressed in the novel are still relevant to our current culture, in particular, in its positing of humanism versus populism.  

This debate between humanism and populism is literally expressed in the characters of Herr Settembrini, whom I quote above, and Herr Naphta.  I’m linking this online essay that I found which expresses  this argument and its bearing on our current situation in the West better than I ever could:  Reading the Magic Mountain in the Age of Populism. Both Settembrini and Naphta are wrestling for Hans’ soul as they argue their points in the novel. I don’t think that Mann tips his hand as to which philosophy he personally supports.  I imagine, in their extremes, he supported neither but I appreciate that he lets the reader draw their own conclusions as to right and wrong.  

The beauty of The Magic Mountain is it is one of those books that one could read probably every year and get something different and deeper out of it every time. And don’t let my droning on about philosophical debate give the wrong impression of the book. It is also quite funny in places. Hans Castorp is a bit of a bumbling fool and many of the guests/patients are ridiculous. It is an interesting juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the deadly serious. I’m glad I read it, though for an introduction to Mann, I would suggest reading Buddenbrooks first. It is shorter and more approachable, for sure. I’ve not read any other books by Thomas Mann yet, though I may try the novella, Death in Venice, next.