magic mountain

The Magic Mountain

The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg) is a novel by Thomas Mann, first published in November 1924. It is widely considered to be one of the most influential works of 20th century German literature.

Mann started writing what was to become The Magic Mountain in 1912. It began as a much shorter narrative, which revisited in a comic manner aspects of Death in Venice, a novella that he was then preparing for publication. The newer work reflected his experiences and impressions during a period when his wife, who was suffering from a lung complaint, was confined to Dr Friedrich Jessen's 'Waldsanatorium' in Davos, Switzerland for several months. In May and June 1912 he paid her a visit and got to know the team of doctors who were treating her in this cosmopolitan institution. According to Mann, in the afterword that was later included in the English translation, this stay became the foundation of the opening chapter (Arrival) of the completed novel.

The outbreak of the First World War interrupted work on the book. The conflict and its aftermath led the author to undertake a major re-examination of European bourgeois society, including the sources of the wilful, perverse destructiveness displayed by much of civilised humanity. He was also drawn to speculate about more general questions surrounding personal attitudes to life, health, illness, sexuality and mortality. Given this, Mann felt compelled to radically revise and expand the pre-war text before completing it in 1924. Der Zauberberg was eventually published in two volumes by S. Fischer Verlag in Berlin.

His vast composition is erudite, subtle, ambitious, but, most of all, ambiguous; since its original publication it has been subject to a variety of critical assessments. For example, the book blends a scrupulous realism along with deeper symbolic undertones. Given this complexity, each reader is obliged to weigh up the artistic significance of the pattern of events set out within the narrative; a task made more difficult by the author's Olympian irony. Mann himself was well aware of his book's elusiveness, but offered few clues about approaches to the text. He later compared it to a symphonic work, orchestrated with a number of themes and, in a playful commentary on the problems of interpretation, recommended that those who wished to understand it should read it through twice.

Plot summary

The narrative opens in the decade before World War I. We are introduced to the central protagonist of the story, Hans Castorp, the only child of a Hamburg mercantile family who, following the early death of his parents, has been brought up by his grandfather and subsequently by an uncle named James Tienappel. We encounter him when he is in his early 20s, about to take up a shipbuilding career in Hamburg, his home town. Just before beginning this professional career Castorp undertakes a journey to visit his tubercular cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, who is seeking a cure in a sanatorium in Davos, high up in the Swiss Alps. In the opening chapter, Hans is symbolically transported away from the familiar life and mundane obligations he has known, in what he later learns to call "the flatlands", to the rarefied mountain air and introspective little world of the sanatorium.

Castorp's departure from the sanatorium is repeatedly delayed by his failing health. What at first appears to be a minor bronchial infection with slight fever is diagnosed by the sanatorium's chief doctor and director, Hofrat Behrens, as symptoms of tuberculosis. Hans is persuaded by Behrens to stay until his health improves.

During his extended stay, Castorp meets and learns from a variety of characters, who together represent a microcosm of pre-war Europe. These include the secular humanist and encyclopedist Lodovico Settembrini (a student of Giosuè Carducci), the totalitarianist Jesuit Leo Naphta, the dionysian Mynheer Peeperkorn, and his romantic interest Madame Clavdia Chauchat.

In the end, Castorp remains in the morbid atmosphere of the sanatorium for seven years. At the conclusion of the novel, the war begins, Castorp is conscripted into the military, and his imminent death on the battlefield is suggested.

Literary significance & criticism

The Magic Mountain can be read both as a classic example of the European bildungsroman - a "novel of education" or "novel of formation" - and as a sly parody of this genre. Many formal elements of this type of fiction are present: like the protagonist of a typical bildungsroman, the immature Castorp leaves his home and learns about art, culture, politics, human frailty and love. Also embedded within this vast novel are extended reflections on the experience of time, music, nationalism, sociological issues and changes in the natural world. Hans Castorp’s stay in the rarefied air of The Magic Mountain thus provides him with a panoramic view of pre-war European civilisation and its discontents.

Thomas Mann’s description of the subjective experience of serious illness and the gradual process of medical institutionalisation are of interest in themselves, as are his allusions to the irrational forces within the human psyche at a time when Freudian psychoanalysis was becoming prominent. These themes relate to the development of Castorp's character over the time span covered by the novel, a point that the author himself underlined. In the informative afterword written for the 1927 English translation, Mann states that "what [Hans] came to understand is that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health . . . ."

At the core of this complex work is an encyclopaedic survey of the ideas and debates associated with modernity. Mann acknowledged his debt to the skeptical insights of Nietzsche concerning modern humanity and embodied this in the novel in the arguments between the characters. Throughout the book the author employs the discussion with and between Settembrini, Naphta and the medical staff to introduce the impressionable Castorp to a wide spectrum of competing ideologies about responses to the Age of Enlightenment. However, whereas the classical bildungsroman would conclude by having "formed" Castorp into a mature member of society, with his own world view and greater self-knowledge, The Magic Mountain ends cynically, leaving him bereft of any real individuality, an anonymous conscript, one of millions, under fire on some battlefield of World War I.

Major themes

Connection to Death in Venice

According to the author, he originally planned the The Magic Mountain as a novella; a humorous, ironic, satirical (and satyric) pendant to Death in Venice, which he had completed in 1912. The atmosphere was to derive from the "mixture of death and amusement" that Mann had encountered whilst visiting his wife in a Swiss sanatorium. This fascination with death, the triumph of ecstatic disorder over a life devoted to order, which he had explored in Death in Venice was supposed to be transferred to a comedic plane.

Thus, The Magic Mountain contains many contrasts and parallels with the earlier novel. The established author Gustav von Aschenbach is matched to a young, callow engineer at the start of a humdrum career. The allure of the beautiful Polish boy Tadzio corresponds to the Asiatic-weary ("asiatisch-schlaff") Russian Madame Chauchat. The setting itself has shifted both geographically and symbolically; switching from the flooded and diseased Italian coastlands to an alpine resort famed for its health-giving properties, with the threat of a fatal cholera infection in Venice becoming the sanatorium's promise of a respite from, or a cure for, tuberculosis.

Illness and death

The Berghof patients suffer from some form of tuberculosis, which rules the daily routines, thoughts, and conversations of the "Half-a-lung club". The disease ends fatally for many of the patients, such as the Catholic girl Barbara Hujus whose fear of death is heightened in a harrowing Viaticum-scene, and cousin Ziemssen who leaves this world like an ancient hero. The dialogues between Settembrini and Naphta discuss the theme of life and death from a metaphysical perspective. Besides the deaths from fatal illness, two characters commit suicide, and finally Castorp goes off to fight in World War I, and it is implied that he will be killed on the battlefield.

In the above-mentioned comment Mann writes

"What Castorp learns to fathom is that all higher health must have passed through illness and death. [...]. As Hans Castorp once says to Madame Chauchat, there are two ways to life: One is the common, direct, and brave. The other is bad, leading through death, and that is the genius way. This concept of illness and death, as a necessary passage to knowledge, health, and life, makes The Magic Mountain into a novel of initiation."

Time

Closely connected to the themes of life and death is the subjective nature of time, a leitmotif that recurs throughout the book. Thus Chapter VII, entitled "By the Ocean of Time", opens with the narrator asking rhetorically, "Can one tell - that is to say, narrate - time, time itself, as such, for its own sake?" Mann's authorial (and ironic) response to the question posed is, "That would surely be an absurd undertaking...", before going on to compare storytelling to the act of music making, with both described as being alike in that they can, " ...only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one thing after another..." .  

The Magic Mountain, in essence, embodies the author's meditations on the tempo of experience.

The narrative is ordered chronologically but it accelerates throughout the novel, so that the first five chapters relates only the first of Castorp’s seven years at the sanatorium in great detail; the remaining six years, marked by monotony and routine, are described in the last two chapters. This asymmetry corresponds to Castorp’s own skewed perception of the passage of time.

This structure reflects the protagonists’ thoughts. Throughout the book, they discuss the philosophy of time, and debate whether "interest and novelty dispel or shorten the content of time, while monotony and emptiness hinder its passage". The characters also reflect on the problems of narration and time, about the correspondence between the length of a narrative and the duration of the events it describes.

Mann also meditates upon the interrelationship between the experience of time and space; of time seeming to pass more slowly when one doesn't move in space. This aspect of the novel mirrors contemporary philosophical and scientific debates which are embodied in Heidegger's writings and Einstein´s theory of relativity, in which space and time are inseparable. In essence, Castorp's subtly transformed perspective on the "flat-lands" corresponds to a movement in time.

Magic and mountains

The titular reference to mountain reappears in many layers. The Berghof sanatorium lies on a mountain not only geographically, but also figuratively, a reclusive, separate world. The mountain also represents the opposite of Castorp's home, the sober, business-like and (for Joachim Ziemßen) mortal "flatland."

The first part of the novel culminates and ends in the sanatorium's Carnival feast. There, in a grotesque scene named after Walpurgis Night, the setting is transformed into the Blocksberg, where according to German tradition witches and wizards meet in obscene revelry; also described in Goethe's Faust I. At this event, Castorp finally woos Madame Chauchat; their subtle conversation is almost wholly performed in French.

Another topos of German literature is the Venus Mountain (Venusberg) that also appears in Richard Wagner's opera Tannhäuser. This mountain is a "hellish paradise," a place of lust and abandon, where Time flows differently: the visitor loses all sense of time, and though he thinks his stay only lasts a few hours, when he finally leaves the mountain, seven years have passed. Also Castorp, who originally planned to stay for three weeks, leaves the Berghof only after seven years.

In general, the inhabitants of the Berghof spend their days in a mythical, distant atmosphere, full of references to fairy tales and sagas: The x-ray laboratory in the cellar is compared to the Hades of Greek mythology, where Medical Director Behrens acts as the judge and punisher Rhadamanthys and where Castorp is but a fleeting visitor, like Odysseus. Behrens also compares the cousins to Castor and Pollux, Settembrini compares himself with Prometheus. Frau Stöhr mentions Sisyphus and Tantalus, albeit confusedly.

The culmination point of the second part of the novel is perhaps the - still "episodic" - chapter on Hans Castorp's blizzard dream (in the novel simply called "Snow"), where the protagonist gets into a sudden blizzard, beginning a death-bounding sleep, dreaming at first of beautiful meadows with blossoms, and of loveable young people at a southern seaside; then of a scene reminiscent mainly of a grotesque event in Goethe's Faust I ("the witches' kitchen" , again in Goethe's "Blocksberg chapter"); and finally ending with a dream of extreme cruelty - the slaughtering and carnivoring of a child by two witches, priests of a classic temple. According to Thomas Mann's interpretation in the text, this represents the original, but deathly-destructive force of nature itself. Of course, finally Hans Castorp awakes in due time, escapes from the blizzard, and simply returns to the "Berghof". But rethinking his dreams he concludes for the moment that  Because of charity and love, man should never allow death to rule one's thoughts. Hans Castorp soon forgets this sentence, so for him the blizzard-event remains a pure interlude. But for Thomas Mann himself the sentence (which throughout the whole novel is the only one in italics) remains important, and so he states it, for personal consequences and for his readers.

References to Grimm's Fairy Tales abound. The opulent meals are compared to the magically self-laying table of Table, Donkey, and Stick, Frau Engelhardt's persevering quest to learn the first name of Madame Chauchat mirrors the queen in Rumpelstiltskin. Castorp shares his first name with Clever Hans, but also his naïveté, losing in the end what he earned in seven years when his formative process abruptly ends on the battlefield.

As to the magical number seven: Castorp spends seven years at the Berghof, the central Walpurgis Night scene happens after seven months, both cousins have seven letters in their last name, the dining hall has seven tables, the digits of Castorp's room number (34) add to seven, Settembrini's name includes seven in Italian, Joachim keeps a thermometer in his mouth for seven minutes, and Mynheer Peeperkorn announces his suicide in a group of seven. Joachim dies at seven o'clock. Even Castorp's parents die when he is 7.

Music

Hans Castorp loved music from his heart; it worked upon him much the same way as did his breakfast porter, with deeply soothing, narcotic effect, tempting him to doze.

There is something suspicious about music, gentlemen. I insist that she is, by her nature, equivocal. I shall not be going too far in saying at once that she is politically suspect. - Herr Settembrini, ch. 4
(Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Der Zauberberg, Fischer (1924). The Magic Mountain)

In fact, music plays a major role throughout Thomas Mann's work (as in many novels of the poet, already in the Buddenbrooks, but notably in Doktor Faustus): in The Magic Mountain, the recently invented Edison grammophone allows the Berghof people to listen to, e.g., Aida's final duet with Radames from Verdi's opera, and to Schubert's multi-valent song "Der Lindenbaum" from the Winterreise, both full of mourning feelings in the view of death. Hans Castorp engages himself very much in such presentations. With the last-mentioned song of Franz Schubert on his lips, our protagonist is told to vanish on the battlefields of World War I . (This end of the novel is at the same time of parodistic character, concerning the romantic love for "death", see e.g. Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. It may also contain some amount of self-irony, since the song is sometimes considered as typical for prewar Germany, whereas the novel was published during the Weimar republic, which was now strongly defended by Thomas Mann.)

In any case one can speak of Thomas Mann's novel as "music by words".

Allegorical characters

Mann uses the novel's main characters to introduce Castorp to the ideas and ideologies of his time. The author observed that the characters are all "exponents, representatives, and messengers of intellectual districts, principles, and worlds," hoping that he had not made them mere wandering allegories.

Castorp

According to the author, the protagonist is a questing knight, the "pure fool" looking for the Holy Grail in the tradition of Parzival. However, he remains pale and mediocre, representing a German bourgeois that is torn between conflicting influences—capable of the highest humanistic ideals, yet at the same time prone to both stubborn philistinism and radical ideologies. As usual, Mann chooses his protagonist's name carefully: Hans is a generic German first name, almost anonymous, but also refers to the fairy tale figure of Hans im Glück and the apostle St. John (Johannes in German), the favourite disciple of Jesus, who beholds the Revelation (Offenbarung des Johannes in German).

In a way, Hans Castorp can be seen as the incorporation of the young Weimar Republic: Both humanism and radicalism, represented by Settembrini and Naphta, try to win his favour, but Castorp is unable to decide. His body temperature is a subtle metaphor for his lack of clarity: Following Schiller’s theory of fever, Castorp’s temperature is always 37.6°C, which is neither healthy nor ill, but an interstage. Furthermore the outside temperature in Castorp's residence is out of balance: it is either too warm or too cold and tends to extremes (e.g. snow in August), but never normal.

Settembrini: Humanism

Settembrini represents the active and positive ideal of the Enlightenment, of Humanism, democracy, tolerance and human rights. He often finds Castorp literally in the dark and switches on the light before their conversations. He compares himself to Prometheus of Greek mythology, who brought of fire and enlightenment to Man. His own mentor Carducci has even written a hymn to another lightbringer: to Lucifer, "la forza vindice della ragione." His ethics are those of bourgeois values and labour. He tries to counter Castorp's morbid fascination with death and disease, warns him against the ill Madame Chauchat, and tries to demonstrate a positive outlook on life.

His antagonist Naphta describes him as "Zivilisationsliterat". Mann originally constructed Settembrini as a caricature of the liberal-democratic novelist, represented for example by his own brother Heinrich Mann. However, while the novel was written, Mann himself became an outspoken supporter of the Weimar Republic, which may explain why Settembrini, especially in the later chapters, becomes the authorial voice.

Settembrini's physical characteristics are reminiscent of the Italian composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo.

Naphta: Radicalism

Settembrini's antagonist Naphta represents the forces of decay, of radicalism and extremism. His perspective combines several heterogeneous radical aspects that include fascism, anarchism, and communism. With brilliant intelligence he aims to unmask Settembrini's values and ethics and leads them ad absurdum, "as if to prove that the Sun revolves around Earth." Settembrini admits that Naptha's sophistry usually prevails in their frequent verbal duels for the favour of their eager student Castorp. In the end, Castorp sides with Settembrini, based on his benevolence more than the soundness of his arguments.

In Mann's original draft, Naphta was not planned but was added later, while the Weimar Republic was threatened by radical ideologies from all sides, eventually leading to its failure. Hans Castorp famously tries to classify Naphta politically and comes to the conclusion that he was just as revolutionary as Settembrini--not in liberal, but in a conservative way. So he decides that Naphta was a Revolutionär der Erhaltung (revolutionist of conservation). This apparent oxymoron alludes to a heterogeneous movement of right wing intellectuals called the Conservative Revolution. The term, probably first adopted by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was repeatedly used by Mann and is meant to be revolutionary in a reactionary sense: The movement was highly nationalistic and not only fought against the ideals of left-wing socialism, liberalism and enlightenment, but it also detested the lost Empire’s dull conservatism of the petty bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. The movement was somewhat elusive, flirting with every radicalism against established views. Thus, Naphta himself is conceived as a living contradiction in terms: An ex-Jewish Jesuit, anti-capitalist, hostile to modernity, freedom, individuality and progress, anarchic and theocratic. Possible inspirations for Naphta are Leon Trotsky and Georg Lukács.

Chauchat: Love and temptation

Clavdia Chauchat represents erotic temptation, lust, and love, all in a degenerate, morbid, "Asiatic-weary" form. She is one of the major reasons for Castorp's extended stay on the magic mountain. The female promise of sensual pleasure as hindrance to male zest for action imitates the themes from the Circe mythos and in the nymphs in Wagner's Venus Mountain. Chauchat's feline characteristics are noted often, her last name is derived from the French chaud chat (Eng., hot cat), and her first name includes the English claw. Her name may also be a reference to the Chauchat machine gun, a French weapon that saw significant use by both the French and American forces during World War One.

Peeperkorn: The Dionysian Principle

Mynheer Peepercorn, Clavdia Chauchat's new lover, enters the Berghof scenery rather late; but he is certainly one of the most important persons of the novel. His behaviour and personality, with its flavour of importance, combined with obvious awkwardness and the strange ability never to complete a statement, reminds to certain figures in former novellas of the author (e.g., to Herr Klöterjahn in Tristan) - figures, which are, on the one hand, admired because of their vital energy, and, on the other hand, condemned because of their naivety. In total, this person represents the grotesqueness of a Dionysian character.

Peepercorn ends by suicide, also performed in a strange manner.

By Mynheer Peeperkorn the author of the novel simultaneously personalizes his rival, the influential German poet Gerhart Hauptmann, and even certain properties of Goethe (with whom Hauptmann often was compared).

Ziemßen: Duty

Chauchat: The Asiatic/Desire/Seduction

Trivia

  • Characters from the novel are re-employed by Frederic Tuten in his book Tintin in the New World.
  • The Blonde Redhead song Magic Mountain from the Misery Is a Butterfly album is based on the book. Kazu Makino, the songwriter, was recovering from severe pneumonia when someone had commented that she was like the character from The Magic Mountain. The song incorporates ideas like "the flatlands" and the sense of never leaving.
  • Author and Illinois State University Professor Curtis White published "America's Magic Mountain" in 2004. The book is a post-modern and contemporary re-telling of Mann's original novel. A word by word examination of Mann's novel, followed by multiple revisions led to White's novel.
  • Noisecore band, Lightning Bolt, named their fourth album, Hypermagic Mountain, after the book.
  • Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood sees the protagonist reading Mann's The Magic Mountain as he goes to visit his friend Naoko at a sanitorium on a mountain outside Kyoto. As in Mann's novel, many of the sanitorium patients are reluctant to leave their isolation.
  • Pawel Huelle published in 2007 a novel called Castorp depicting Hans Castorp's stay in Danzig before the action of the Mann novel begins.
  • Maria Mancini, a cigar currently produced in Honduras, makes a size called the Magic Mountain. Castorp smokes Maria Mancini cigars almost through the end of the novel, when he cuts all ties with the flatlands, and begins buying cigars locally.
  • A copy of Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann is destroyed by a Nazi in the 1941 film 49th Parallel which depicts a WW2 U-boat crew stranded in northern Canada and stars a young Sir Lawrence Olivia and Leslie Howard. The book is a focal point of an amazing scene with Howard who plays Philip Armstrong Scott.

Bibliography

Translations into English

  • The Magic Mountain, translated into English by H T Lowe-Porter with an afterword by the author, 1927, Secker and Warburg, SBN 436-27237-2
  • The Magic Mountain, a new translation into English by John E. Woods,1996, ISBN 0-679-77287-1. This won the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize in 1996.

Literary criticism

  • Dowden, Stephen (2002) A Companion to Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, Camden House, ISBN 1-57113-248-1
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. (1986) The Magic Mountain: Modern Critical Interpretations, Chelsea House, ISBN 0-87754-902-8
  • Heller, Erich (1958) The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann, Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown and Co.
  • Jesi, Furio (1979), "Venusberg - Hexenberg - Zauberberg", in Materiali mitologici. Mito e antropologia nella cultura mitteleuropea, Einaudi, Torino 2001 (pp. 224-52)
  • Lukács, Georg (1965) Essays on Thomas Mann, Translated by Stanley Mitchell, New York, Grosset and Dunlap
  • Reed, T J (1974) Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition, Oxford University Press
  • Robertson, Ritchie (2001) The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann (Cambridge Companions to Literature Series), Cambridge University Press
  • Travers, Martin (1992) Thomas Mann, Modern Novelists Series, Macmillan
  • Weigand, Hermann J (1971) Thomas Mann's Novel "Der Zauberberg": A Study, New York, AMS Press

External links

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