A few days after Thomas Mann published The Magic
Mountain
in November 1924, 35-year-old Adolf Hitler was
released from Landsberg Prison in Bavaria.  The previous
November, Hitler had instigated an armed uprising at the
Bürgerbräukeller, a large beer hall located a short distance
from where Mann lived.  Hitler was convicted of treason,
and spent 264 days in confinement—a period during
which he read extensively on
eugenics and racial hygiene,
and dictated the text of
Mein
Kampf
to his fellow inmates
Emil Maurice and Rudolf
Hess.

Because of this nexus of
events, the best known works
of 20th century German
fiction and non-fiction were
composed during the same
period…yet with such
contrasting results. Indeed,
the peculiar antithesis
between the two books
demands our attention.  For Mann’s fixation on the
creative energies released through illness and organic
decline represents almost the mirror image of Hitler's
obsession with the advancement of racial health and
national purity.  When Susan Sontag later wrote a
provocative book on
Illness as Metaphor, she devoted a
significant portion of the work to Thomas Mann; and, I
dare say, if anyone ever delves as deeply into the
perversion of "health as metaphor," their studies will
invariably lead them to the maniacal inmate at Landsberg
Prison.

RELATED ESSAYS
The Magical Realism of Mann's Doctor Faustus
Buddenbrooks and the Novel of Business

An interest in dissipation and decline had been evident
in Mann's work from the start.  His debut novel
Buddenbrooks—which carried the subtitle, The Decline of
a Family
—traced the painfully slow descent of a
prosperous family of grain merchants over the course of
several generations.  The novel drew heavily on Mann's
upbringing amidst his own family's similar business, and
gives us deep insight into the burden that mercantile
success can represent to son who must negate other
talents and inclinations in a doomed attempt to prop up
an unsustainable legacy.  Mann narrowly escaped this fate
himself (largely due to the success of the very novel he
wrote describing it), but never lost his interest in
weakening and waning powers, whether social, familial
or biological.  In a host of exemplary works—notably
Tristan (1903), Death in Venice (1912), The Magic Mountain
(1924),
Dr. Faustus (1947) and The Black Swan (1954)—
Mann returned to this theme, always finding new insights
and inspiration in tales of dissolution and medical
pathology, subjects that few other authors would care to
embrace.  If, as is often said, we live in a culture that
fixates on youth, beauty, health and wholeness, then
Thomas Mann may be the novelist least aligned with the
prevailing psychology.  

The Magic Mountain, in my opinion, is the greatest of
Mann's works, albeit the one that caters least to our
fascination with the glamorous and beguiling.  The plot
is devoid of grand conflicts or spectacular events—the
novel takes place a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss
Alps, with most of the "action" (I use that term loosely)
revolving around the daily regimen of eating, talking,
treatment and rest.   The hero of the book is hardly heroic,
or compelling to any degree:  Hans Castorp, a banal
engineer of conventional make-up, travels to the
sanatorium to spend three weeks with his cousin, the
undemonstrative soldier Joachim Ziemssen.  The closest
thing to a love interest here is fellow patient Clawdia
Chauchat, with her "lone-wolf eyes" and flushed skin
"that only feigned health."  Her best seduction move is to
offer Castorp a pencil (banality again, and please spare
me the Freudian interpretation).  No, this is not
Romeo
and Juliet
or Tristan und Isolde—it's more like a bumbling
romance in a Woody Allen film...but without the witty
one-liners.  

Castorp soon learns that he has fallen ill, and that his
intended three-week stay must stretch out indefinitely.
The setting is pleasant enough, however, and the residents
are treated more like guests at a spa or resort rather than
patients in a hospital.  The meals are lavish, even if the
table banter reveals a tendency toward the macabre.  
Topics of conservation revolve around fluctuations of
body temperature or the question of which is more
ominous: a wet cough or a dry one.  If it weren't for such
dark obsessions and the more serious cases, one might
confuse this medical facility for a holiday spot.  

To the extent that Mann offers fireworks and drama,
they come via the subplots and secondary characters, but
these are constructed with a verve and imagination that
only a few novelists, perhaps only a Dostoevsky or
Proust, can match.  I will say straight up that my favorite
part of this book involves two modest players in the
larger drama, the authoritarian Jesuit priest Naphta and
the Italian humanist Settembrini.  Mann may have drawn
on real life models here, with the well-known Marxist
philosopher Georg Lukács serving as inspiration for
Naphta while Settembrini represents elements of Mann's
brother Heinrich, as well as the author himself. Almost
every chapter and verse in human history is dragged into
their debates—Gothic art, neo-Platonism, Thomism,
Rousseau, Ptolemy, the Roman empire, Lactantius, the
Christian Middle Ages, and much else besides. Their
clash is a parody of conflicting values in contemporary
Europe, but no less engaging for the exaggerated
intellectual bravado with which the two polemicists
match wits.

The heated exchanges between Settembrini and Naphta
—both of them seeking to enlist the hapless Castorp to
their side—reminds us that our Alpine retreat is a
microcosm of larger forces and agendas.  And what
better metaphor for Europe between the two Great Wars
could we find than a sanitarium where the sick grasp
falteringly after a long-lost health and wholeness,
meanwhile giving in to all sorts of self-indulgences and
personal gratifications?  The phrase "inmates running the
asylum" comes to mind here, and Mann encourages this
sense of disarray via his chief physician and sanitarium
director Hofrat Behrens, who comes across more as a
jovial observer than a proactive healer.  In today's New
Age jargon, we might call him an
enabler.

Writing at a time when experimental forces were changing
the shape of the novel—Joyce's
Ulysses came out two
years before
The Magic Mountain and Kafka's The Trial was
published a few months later—Mann maintains loyalty to
traditional concepts of narrative style, sentence structure
and character development.  He aspires to comparison
with the literary exemplars of the past—offering readers
an ambitious continuation of the tradition of big,
sprawling philosophically deep novels of the late 19th and
early 20th century by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, James,
Flaubert—rather than anticipating the next new thing.  
Yet
The Magic Mountain is not without its daring formal
gestures.  I especially admire the gradual acceleration of
the novel's chronology—which mimics the effects of
new surroundings on the human psyche.  During the
first few days in a different environment, our experiences
seem rich, varied and crammed with detail; yet after
weeks and months of routine, time flies as our days
become undifferentiated.  Mann brilliantly evokes this
response in the pacing of his story.  The effect is
vertiginous and conveys, in an unsettling manner, the
terror one feels at the foreshortening of experienced time
associated with aging, decline and impending death.

I am not surprised that Thomas Mann, an author fixated
on what the chess grandmasters call the
endgame, would
find the ideal structural approach to heighten this
psychological state over the course of a novel.  And
here the everyman qualities in our prime character and
the less-than-riveting events of the novel further the
effect.  This is a story that we are meant to experience as
our own—not as an escapist fantasy of life on a larger
scale, not a breathtaking romance or adventure, or a
vicarious look at how some other group prospers or fails.  
The grappling with health and wholeness, the staving off
of decline, the grasping after the simple creature comforts
of food, shelter and human embrace, the trade-offs
between self-indulgence and a larger well-being:  these
are the fabric of our own lives, yet maddeningly difficult
to translate into the form of large-scale fiction.  In this
regard, Mann’s success in
The Magic Mountain is
unsurpassed, and his novel—for all its old-fashioned
qualities—hardly dated by the passing years. And to some
extent, it still offers a corrective and critique of that other
work of German letters, its evil twin, that came upon us
in the same time and place.


Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.

Publication Date:  May 28, 2012
The Magic Mountain
& Mein Kampf

by Ted Gioia
fractious fiction
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