But mind, the mountain’s magic-mad tonight,
And if you choose a will-o’-the-wisp to light
Your path, take care, ‘twill lead you all astray.
We know that when the German is sick, things get bad. And the German is sick.
Politically Incorrect, Blogger
If I am right, and the Western world is incurably sick, and if my run of luck continues and I am correct in calling Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain the great Western novel of sickness, then it is to Mann we must turn for our prognosis.
I recently finished my third reading of the winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature, and understood it for the first time. The plot is deceptively simple. In the first decade of the last century, young German engineer Hans Castorp pays a visit to his tubercular cousin in a mountain-top sanatorium intending a three-month stay, is diagnosed with the illness himself, and eventually stays years among the several resident-patients. And that is it, in terms of the action. But this is a classic novel of ideas, and it is not the sweep of action that makes this an example of what I think of as a beast of a book, that title going to any work over 666 pages. Instead, a rich tapestry of fin de siècle themes, ideologies and fads play themselves out in, to quote from Withnail & I, the arena of the unwell.
The supporting arch of The Magic Mountain is, I suppose, the bad-tempered exchanges between two men who share lodgings: the humanist Settembrini and the mystical Nietzschean Naphta. At the time of the novel’s setting, World War One is approaching, and the prevailing value systems which both provoked that war and survived it in fractured form spellbind Castorp and his fellow sufferers. But there is a Proustian supporting cast of characters, and it is Mann’s genius to make of every small scene a moral and existential world in miniature.
Settembrini the humanist holds to a familiar manifesto;
“Our Western heritage is reason – reason, analysis, action, progress: these and not the slothful bed of monkish tradition!”
But, of course, the shells, mud, and carnage of the Great War are approaching. Perhaps Mann is suggesting that monkish tradition might have been a better option. We are reminded of the marvellous line from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men;
“If the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?”
With this very firmly in mind, the denouement to The Magic Mountain becomes irresistibly symbolic.
Of course, one must beware of symbolism. “Everything resembles everything else”, writes Baudrillard [??], and once the displacement game begins, it must be kept on a short leash – as Freud did – and not allowed to dictate terms. We are reminded of tedious comparisons made by feminist undergraduates wherein guns and rockets are merely phallic symbols. Possibly. But would a vagina-shaped rocket fly, a labial gun fire? That said, one symbol which provides the weave of The Magic Mountain is undeniable; sickness.
The passages which deal with tuberculosis maintain Mann’s fascination with bodily sickness as an obvious metaphor – or perhaps metastasis would be more appropriate – for sickness of the soul. Hans Castorp, at the early stages of his astounded fascination with Clavdia Chauchet (which features one of the most erotically charged kisses I have ever read), carries about with him not her photograph but an X-ray image of her lungs.
Mann’s fascination with the various stages of treatment and monitoring parallels the morbid curiosity concerning illness we find again in Dr Faustus, and of course it is here where the ghost of Nietzsche walks abroad most obviously. Nietzsche wrote of the sickness of the West, and was himself a sick man. In The Magic Mountain, there is
“…much to say on the subject of the material as the dishonourable decay of the immaterial, of life as the impudicity of substance, or disease as an impure manifestation of life.”
A century on from Mann’s mountain-top setting, Germany’s modern-day sickness is as self-willed as that of engineer Castorp. Despite antibodies in the form of, say, PEGIDA, the bacteria are present now across Europe which must eventually kill it. Time, as faithful a narrator as ever, will tell.
Mann was obsessed with time. The introductory meditation on the coulisse in Joseph and his Brothers can be read as a separate piece, and many passages on the nature of temporality in The Magic Mountain could almost be cut and pasted into a Husserlian essay. “Time is something I understand fully,” writes Saint Augustine, “until someone asks me to explain it.”
A third reading, then, of this most awesome (in its real sense, not the childish modern shang-hai of the word) of novels, and a first understanding, and the first time the book made me cry. Great literature can do this to me, ever since as a young boy I read the last sentence of The Lord of the Rings, when Sam says simply; Well, I’m back.
Obviously, I read German novels in translation, but English and German are sister languages, from common Indo-Germanic roots, and this kinship makes Thomas Mann’s prose more than a pleasure; an excitement, a taker away of the breath. From close to the end of the book, Mann brings down the curtain on The Magic Mountain’s meditation on time. In these tawdry days, where writers rarely care much for prose as long as they are observing the dull and formulaic protocols which will get them a publishing deal, The Magic Mountain reads as a rich reminder not only of a ruined and sick future – certainly for Europe as she is now - but of a vanished and darkling past;
“Thus he did honour to his abiding-everlasting, his walk by the ocean of time, the hermetic enchantment to which he had proved so extraordinarily susceptible that it had become the fundamental adventure of his life, in which all the alchemistical processes of his simple substance had found full play.”