“It’s like trying to tell a stranger ‘bout rock ‘n roll.”
The Magic in The Magic Mountain.
“If you believe in magic
Come along with me.”
Do You Believe in Magic?
The Lovin’ Spoonful.
Hans Castorp Faces Life in Death and Death in Life.
What is the magic in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain? It is a novel full of talking heads, abstruse debates, and abstract ideas. There is almost no action in what passes for a story. The story takes place in a tuberculosis sanatorium full of diseased people, many of whom exhibit disgusting symptoms, and who are dying right and left. So, what makes readers avidly turn the pages of the book (all 854 of them in the Everyman’s Library edition), and leads many to return repeatedly to the book? What, in turn, made Hans Castorp, the main character of the novel, come to the hospital for a three-week visit, and then stay for seven years? What is the magic in the mountain?
The Magic Mountain is a novel of ideas, in which tubercular patients and their caregivers engage in desperate debates about the meaning of life in the face of death. The unnamed sanitarium in the book is on a mountain top in Davos, Switzerland. Davos is today the home of an annual gathering of the ultra-rich, super powerful, and internationally famous, who come together for meetings with each other and with star academics to try to figure out what is going on in the world, and what they can do about it. Davos was in the early twentieth century the home of many sanitariums, its high altitude in the Alps and its weather conditions having been considered optimal for curing, or at least ameliorating, tuberculosis.
Patients in the sanitarium in The Magic Mountain are subject to a rigid regimen of eating large quantities of rich foods some half-dozen times a day, and then lying down for most of the rest of the day bundled up in blankets on reclining chairs on ice cold balconies. Gorging on food, then digesting and resting are the basic principles of this cure, along with obsessively taking one’s temperature to gauge the state of one’s disease. Most of the patients in the book succumb to the stultifying routine and the suffocating idleness of this regimen. “Six months at most after they have come here, these young people – and they are mostly young people who come here – have lost every idea except flirtation and temperature.” Hans himself quickly settles into the deadening routine, obsessively taking his temperature, and becoming besotted with Madam Clavdia Chauchat. a female patient.
Every day is the same for most of the patients, so that time ceases to be meaningful. Weeks seem like days, months like weeks, years like months. They are mesmerized by the routine, and they focus so intensely on themselves that they can see, hear, and think of little outside of themselves. “Disease makes men more physical,” claims one of the patients, “It leaves them nothing but body.” The regimen becomes a fetish, a magical ritual, that patients think will keep them alive. But they become like the living dead, for whom life has little meaning beyond physical survival.
The book has been called “a narration about the passage of time” in which the structure of the novel mimics the experience of the patients. The first couple of years that Hans is at the sanitarium occupy about three-quarters of the book, the next five years the rest. That is, the period of time when things are new to Hans, and he is getting used to not getting used to being at the sanitarium, as he likes to say, seems to pass slowly. But once he is acclimated, and falls into the routine of the place, time seems to fly by in a fog.
This becalming effect is seemingly one the reasons that some readers of the book become repeated re-readers. They get caught up in the comforting effects of the patients’ routine, and they find irresistible the book’s descriptions of lavish meals and snug rest periods. The book has, in this regard, been hailed as “a work of sick-lit par excellence,” because it gives readers a chance to luxuriate in their own woes as they meander through the long novel.
But the stasis established for patients by the sanitarium’s regimen is not stable. Most of them are very sick, and denial of this fact cannot last. Devastating turns for the worse, horrifying surgical procedures, and pathetic deaths repeatedly punctuate the routine of the sanitarium, and puncture the hermetic chambers of mind and body in which patients try to survive. Despite the sanitarium’s best efforts to keep these events secret – dying patients are quarantined from the observation of other patients, and corpses are removed at night through underground passages — these events disrupt life at the sanitarium, and disrupt our vicarious enjoyment of the routine. The book may be a work of “sick-lit,” but it’s comforting effects can be short-lived for readers.
Melodrama, Tragedy, and Comedy on the Magic Mountain.
If The Magic Mountain is one part sick-lit, it is two parts egghead-lit. Not everyone at the sanitarium succumbs to the stupefying effects of the routine, or develops a self-centered focus of his or her illness. There are patients and members of the staff at the sanitarium who struggle to find meaning outside of themselves, and who engage in intense theoretical debates with each other. These characters seek to escape the insularity of illness, and the dullness of life at the sanitarium, through intellectual activities. And the alternation of tedium and terror at the sanitarium, being surrounded by life and death in grievous struggle, seems to stimulate the creativity of these people. They principally include the humanist scholar Settembrini, the sanitarium’s head physician Dr. Behrens, the sanitarium’s psychoanalyst Dr. Krokowski, the Jesuit scholar Naphta, and the colonial plantation owner Peeperkorn.
The ideas propounded by these characters constitute a compendium of the main theories of society and psychology that were extant in the early twentieth century. Most of these theories, or variations of them, are still important in the present day. The debates amongst these men are another reason why readers repeatedly return to The Magic Mountain, where “the characters who inhabit [the book] are such delightful company.” The book is intellectually stimulating even as it is emotionally comforting. But the arguments of the debaters all ultimately fail, and the debates reach no viable conclusions.
Each of the debaters is a self-styled humanitarian who seeks the best for all of humankind, and seeks to convert others to his way of thinking toward that end. But in the single-mindedness of their beliefs, and their insistent proselytizing, they invariably get caught up and carried away with their own ideas. In fiercely debating with each other, each ends up carrying his arguments and actions to extreme conclusions, where they illogically turn around and contradict themselves. In the end, each of these characters is dramatically defeated, and thrown back on his isolated self.
Drama has often been categorized into three types: melodrama, comedy, and tragedy. Melodrama is generally characterized by a life-and-death struggle between good and evil, and good guys against bad guys. A melodramatic resolution comes with the triumph of one side over the other, sometimes for good, other times for ill. Comedy is generally characterized by a conflict between fools and wise people, with the laughter coming at the expense of the fools, and the resolution coming with the triumph of wisdom over foolishness. Tragedy is generally characterized by a conflict within an otherwise good person which pushes the person to taken an extreme position, at which point things boomerang on the person and end up taking a turn for the bad. That is, hubris, pride, or egoism lead the person to go too far, at which point the person’s best intended actions to turn back on themselves, contradicting the person’s original intentions, and snatching ill from the jaws of good.
In The Magic Mountain, each of the main debaters tends to see himself as involved in a melodrama, with himself representing good and his opponents evil. Each of them, however, is actually engaged in a self-generated tragedy in which he takes his good ideas to extremes where they end up being distorted into their opposites. For the reader, who can see all of this happening, the book is a comedy in which the main characters foolishly undermine their own ideas, make fools of themselves, and place the reader in the position of wisely recognizing the happy medium the main characters have eschewed.
Hans Castorp is situated in the midst of the debates, with each arguer trying to convert Hans to his position. Hans, for better and worse, is a cipher. For better because that gives us readers the opportunity to hear a full exposition of each arguer’s position. For worse because Hans doesn’t seem to learn anything significant in the course of the book, and ends up essentially unchanged.
Much Ado About Very Little to Do: The Less at Stake, the Greater the Ferocity.
The debates in The Magic Mountain seem to exemplify an old saying about arguments among academics, that the less there is at stake, the more ferocious the debaters. The debates in the book can be divided into two parts. In the first part of the book, the main arguers are Settembrini, Behrens, and Krokowski, and their main theme is the physical causes and effects of illness. In the second part, the main disputants are Settembrini again, along with Naphta, and Peeperkorn. Their focus is on moral, ethical, and spiritual themes. Although convincing Hans is a main goal of the debaters, he is generally more interested in fantasizing romantically about Madam Chauchat, whose feline femininity bewitches him, than in considering their arguments. The magic of her charms is more potent than their ideas.
Settembrini is the sentimental favorite of the book’s narrator, Hans, and us readers. He has a sweet personality, a gently sardonic sense of humor, and his arguments in favor of democratic liberalism and humanitarian cooperation are designed to find favor with most of the people who are likely to read the book. An honest reader is forced, however, to conclude that Settembrini rarely gets the better of the debate. This is unnerving to us and is, I think, one of the reasons people re-read the book. We hope that his arguments will appear stronger in the next reading.
Dr. Behrens represents modern medicine, and he promotes a philosophy based on the humane precept that we should not blame ourselves, or condemn our bodies, for getting sick. In the course of the book, however, this precept evolves into the principle that life is itself a chronic illness. Behrens claims that it is good to get sick because that provokes the body’s defenses against illness. We must fight illness with illness, and find illness wherever we can. He has, thereby, taken a humane idea and stretched it to the turning point where it contradicts itself.
When Hans first arrives at the sanatorium, Settembrini warns Hans that he should leave immediately and, in any case, should have nothing to do with Behrens. Settembrini claims that if Hans talks with Behrens, Hans will end up being convinced by the doctor that he is sick, and will get roped into a long stay as a patient at the sanitarium. That is exactly what happens. Hans develops a bit of a fever and a cough, ends up staying seven years, and when he leaves, it is doubtful that he ever was tubercular. In the course of the book, our view of Behrens changes from benevolent healer to medical crank and bottom-line greedy businessman.
Dr. Krokowski represents modern psychology, and promotes a philosophy based on the humane precept that we should not blame ourselves, or condemn our bodies, for our natural feelings of love and lust. In the course of the book, however, this precept evolves into the principle that love is the root of all illness, and that sexual repression leads to unease which leads to disease. According to Krokowski, “Any symptom of illness was a masked form of love in action, and illness was merely transformed love.” Love is the problem for him, but what is the solution?
Krokowski seems at times to be prescribing free love as the cure for everything that ails us, but obfuscates his suggestions with gobbledy-gook language that ironically leaves his audience titillated but not fully satisfied. His clearest recommendation is for patients to undertake an intensive, multi-year course of psychoanalytic talking sessions with him. But Krokowski’s disclosures of the illicit secrets hidden in people’s psyches seems to hurt patients more than help them. He has, thus, essentially taken a humane opposition to repression, and turned it into an advertisement for his very pricey and not very helpful services.
Settembrini decries Krokowski to Hans as a charlatan, and half-jokingly claims that Krokowski “has one thought in his head, and it is a filthy one.” Krokowski’s own relations with his female patients are somewhat ambiguous, as are Hans’ relations with women. When Hans becomes infatuated with Madam Chauchat, and finds her bewitching, her hold on his mind is one of the main things that keeps him at the sanitarium. When it eventually turns out that she reminds Hans of a boy with whom Hans was infatuated when he was in school, Han is disturbed, but remains enchanted by her. Listening to Krokowski, however, only seems to upset him, making his views of himself and his sexuality even more confused and confusing.
Both Behrens and Krokowski promote what they claim are the findings of modern science about humans and human behavior, that humans are material creatures controlled by their physical instincts and material needs. They both assert that humans invariably think and act irrationally. People just mechanically respond to stimuli without any real forethought, and with rationalizing what they instinctively did as an afterthought. These assertions are ironic, since they are based on the findings of humans rationally engaged in the rational pursuit of science. The two doctors are, thereby, both caught in a contradiction in their own thinking that they don’t recognize.
Settembrini is a rationalist humanist. He wants to rescue humankind from what he sees as the denigration of humanity promoted by the materialistic science advocated by Behrens and Krokowski. He decries the idea that humans are ensnared in a cycle of physical stimuli and responses, and material causes and effects. Whereas Behrens claims that “a stimulus is a stimulus, the body doesn’t give a damn about the meaning of a stimulus,” Settembrini wants to restore the spiritual dignity of humans by emphasizing the ability of people to exercise free will, make rational choices, and create meaning in their lives. When Behrens claims that life is “perhaps only an infectious disease of matter,” Settembrini claims that “illness is a debasement” of life, and that mind can exercise its control over matter. Settembrini proclaims the rule of mind over matter, not matter over mind as the science of Behrens and Krokowski would have it.
But Settembrini takes this humane idea to its inhumane logical conclusion. He ends up blaming our illnesses on ourselves, and claiming that people should be able to overcome illness through will power. It is a moral weakness in people, he claims, to succumb to illness. Settembrini has thereby taken a humane rationalism and turned it into a mean-spirited guilt trip.
One of the tragedies in the book is that Hans is able to comprehend the debaters’ criticisms of each other, and recognize the weaknesses in their ideas, but is generally unable to appreciate the strengths in their respective positions. He goes through a vicious cycle of continually being convinced by the person who last speaks to him, and revolving from one position to the next, until he pretty much gives up on them all, and looks upon the debaters as merely showmen.
The second round of debate in the book, between Settembrini, Naphta, and Peeperkorn, focuses on moral and ethical issues, the nature of the self and human relations. In this debate, Settembrini represents the Enlightenment, Naphta the European Middle Ages, and Peeperkorn the modern era. Each of them claims to promote human dignity and social cooperation, but each has a very different idea of these things.
Settembrini is a humanist scholar who advocates progressive ideas of capitalist democracy and individual freedom. He extolls cooperation among humans through a rational and equitable division of labor. He promotes a cult of work. Work is the means of individual fulfillment and social development. Settembrini believes in human progress, and defines progress as an increasingly productive relationship among humans, and between humans and their environment. He has as an optimistic view of human nature. He believes that if only people would control their emotions, and avoid the lures of demagogues that appeal to the dark side of human nature, all would be well in the world. Settembrini envisions progress as the eventual triumph of reason, and the attendant attainment of perpetual peace on earth and goodwill among humankind.
Naphta is a Jesuit scholar who excoriates the Enlightenment, rejects popular democracy, and denigrates human reason, all in the name of what he calls freedom and equality. Naphta claims to be a benevolent humanitarian, who sympathizes with the poor and ignorant majority of people in the world. He contends that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is a true democracy because it puts everyone in his and her proper place. His idea of a good society is based on an ideal monastery, in which all are equal, albeit the heads of the monastery are more equal, and in which all are free to do what they are required to do.
Naphta’s sympathy with humans is colored by a darkly pessimistic view of human nature. People must be coerced into being good, he claims. During the Middle Ages, they were good out of fear of God, and those who weren’t good were scourged. With the declining influence of God in modern society, people must be coerced by government. “What our age needs,” he proclaims, “what it demands, what it will create for itself, is terror.” Naptha believes that a universal regimen of corporal and capital punishment is what is needed to set things right.
Naphta predicts that wars among nations and within nations will inevitably bring about the dissolution of modern society and the decline of modern civilization. The Enlightenment is doomed to implode. Violence, starvation, and immorality will be rampant. These disasters will, in turn, be the stimulus for a revolution in which a totalitarian monastic dictatorship will come to rule the world. Then there will be peace on earth and goodness among humankind.
Naphta is a brilliant disputant. He invariably reduces Settembrini to rage and almost to tears. His redefinition of freedom as doing what one is told, equality as universal servitude, and peace as totalitarian suppression were intolerable to Settembrini. Naphta is, however, able to push Settembrini into defending war in the name of peace, and thereby exposing a fatal contradiction in Settembrini’s position. But Settembrini is also able to harass Naphta into bloodthirsty proclamations that contradict his humanitarian claims. Settembrini also forces Naphta into acknowledging that Naphta’s God has made a mess of the world, and into implications that He is either cruel or incompetent.
The dispute between Settembrini and Naphta lasts for years. It begins as an attempt by each to convert Hans to his position, seeming to see Hans as the everyman who they must be able to convince to save the world. Although Hans is bewitched and besotted by Madam Chauchat, their disputing over Hans about abstruse philosophical issues becomes an addiction with Settembrini and Naphta. Each seems to feel that his personal salvation and the salvation of the world depends on his winning the argument. Hans eventually becomes inured to the sound and fury of arguments that he can barely understand and that, to him, signify very little. “And on and on it went,” he comes to complain, “we knew the game.”
On it goes until eventually they so grievously insult each other that Naptha insists on fighting a duel with pistols against Settembrini. Although Settembrini abhors dueling as a vestige of barbarism, he agrees to the duel to avoid being considered a coward who won’t stand up for his principles. At the duel, Settembrini fires first and shoots into the air, refusing as a matter of principle to aim at Naptha. Naptha furiously shouts that Settembrini is a coward, and then shoots himself dead in the head. This melodramatic conclusion of their debates seems to symbolize the sterility of their arguments.
The appearance in the book of Herr Peeperkorn further highlights this futility. Madam Chauchat has at one point left the sanatorium, much to Hans’ consternation. When she returns – as most patients who leave the sanitarium seem eventually to do – she is living with Peeperkorn. Hans is initially distraught, as he was hoping she might return to be with him. He cannot understand what she sees in Peeperkorn. Eventually, however, he comes to see what it is, and agrees with her preference for Peeperkorn over himself. This acknowledgement by Hans of Peeperkorn’s superiority highlights how little the teachings of Settembrini and Naphta have taken root in Hans.
If Hans is an intellectual cipher, Peeperkorn is an intellectual nullity. He is “a personality,” a charismatic character whom the narrator describes as not an “instigator of intellectual and pedagogic confusion,” but a source of “great confusion” of a moral kind. He has personal charms that enable him to enthrall all but the most resistant intellectuals. His magic does not work on Behrens and Settembrini, but it captivates Hans and almost all the other patients. When Peeperkorn speaks, he first launches into “a series of linguistic gestures that riveted his listeners’ interest,” and then he delivers “one of his robustly prepared, but incomprehensible phrases.” That is, the guy spoke gibberish, but captivated his audience.
Peeperkorn makes a mockery of all the rationalizing and speechifying of Behrens, Krokowski, Naphta, and Settembrini. His popularity seems pathetically but poignantly to point up the desire of the patients for something other than mere somnolence, but it also points to their inability to distinguish substance from mere showmanship. Peeperkorn is able to rouse the patients to a frantic liveliness, mainly to party hearty, but it only leaves them with hangovers in the morning. Peeperkorn’s philosophy, to the extent he is able to articulate anything, seems to be to eat, drink and be merry, and refuse to comply with the rest cure part of the sanitarium’s regimen. The result is to make him and the other patients sicker than before. He does not stimulate the patients to the sort of life that might compensate for the sickness and death all around them.
Peeperkorn is a colonial plantation owner who is used to having people obey him. He seems to have a need to control others. This leads him to host all-night feasts and gaming parties, as a means of seducing the other patients. It also seems to lead him to commit suicide when he finds out that Hans and Madam Chauchat may have had a one-night sexual affair on Walpurgisnacht, or witches’ night, during her previous stay at the sanitarium. And he suspects that they may still have romantic interests in each other. Peeperkorn seemingly cannot stand the idea that he may have been preceded, and may be superseded, by someone as innocuous as Hans. So, he kills himself out of pique and pride.
Peeperkorn is an idiot, but he is not merely a comic fool in the story. He represents the dangers of a demagogue, someone who may appear to intellectuals such as Settembrini and the readers of The Magic Mountain as a buffoon, but who appeals to the fears of desperate people and has a magical influence over them. He is not evil, but he hints at the possibilities of evil. Mann later explored this theme in prescient depth in the story of “Mario and the Magician,” a novella written in 1929 about an evil magician who can mesmerize the masses. Mann’s fiction became a horrible fact of life in Adolf Hitler. It is currently a disturbing fact of life in Donald Trump.
Intimations of Immortality on the Mountain: Keeping Hope Alive.
The Magic Mountain is not an optimistic book. When it was published in 1924, Naphta seemed to be the better prophet. There had arisen out of the horrors and destruction of World War I a series of authoritarian and potentially totalitarian regimes in Communist Russia, Fascist Italy, and Eastern Europe, all of them ostensibly established on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. The threat posed by demagogues with Peeperkorn’s powers of persuasion was evident in the success of Mussolini in Italy and in the rise of Hitler in Germany, whose participation in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1924 made him a hero among German fascists. The humanistic rationalism and humanitarianism of Settembrini was in retreat almost everywhere. Hope seemed hopeless in 1924. When the book ends, Hans is marching over a World War I battlefield, stepping on and over dead bodies. The implication is that he probably won’t survive. But maybe he will.
While a big part of the magic that draws people back to the book is the coziness of the sanitarium’s routine of eating and resting, and the stimulation of the debates among some of the sanitarium’s residents, I think another big part is the ambiguity of the book’s endings. We are left with the thought that maybe things could have, and still might, end up differently. Settembrini has lost the arguments, but maybe he hasn’t. Maybe a second or third reading of the book will change the outcome. Likewise, Hans may die a senseless death, but maybe he won’t.
In just about the middle of the story, Hans has an epiphany when he is caught in a blinding snow storm while out hiking by himself. He is completely lost in the blizzard, and is almost ready to give himself up to death. But even as he is physically defeated, he fights on mentally, and is caught up by words that come to him seemingly out of nowhere, that “because of charity and love, man should never allow death to rule one’s thoughts.” The italics are in the original, and this is the only italicized sentence in the book, thereby seeming to attest its importance. The power of these words uplifts Hans, even as the power of the storm subsides, and he is able to make it back to the sanitarium. Much to the regret of the narrator and the reader, Hans immediately forgets having had this thought, and gets caught up again in the sanitarium’s death-centered regimen.
The story later ends with what is essentially an epitaph for Hans, that his adventures were “a dream of love.” The narrator leaves us with the hope that “out of the worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round – will love someday rise up out of this, too?” We readers of The Magic Mountain wish that Hans would have held onto his epiphany of love, and made a life of it. Maybe next time we read the book, he will.
 W.B. Gooderham. “Winter Reads: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.” the guardian. 12/14/11.
 Tim O’Neil. “The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.” popmatters. 8/5/2005.
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 Kara Schubenz. “The Magic Mountain.” Modernism Laboratory at Yale University. 1/13/2010.
 W.B. Gooderham. “Winter Reads: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.” the guardian. 12/14/2011.
 Fergis Berdewich. “Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: The Vitality of Big Ideas.” The American Scholar. 11/16/2015.
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