Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Magic Mountain (1): Hans Castorp and the magic mountain

This has ended up being too long for a single post, so I'm splitting it into six parts. More to follow...

1. Hans Castorp and the magic mountain

In 1907 Hans Castorp, a fit and healthy young man, goes on a short visit to his consumptive cousin Joachim in a sanatorium in Davos Platz, high in the Swiss Alps. There he stays for the next seven years, only the First World War shaking him back into the reality of ‘down there’ in the ‘flatlands’. Despite having nothing worse than a slight fever, he chooses to remain in a hospital where, as he explains, ‘[e]verything... is out of the ordinary. The spirit of the place... is not conventional.’ During his time in the sanatorium, Castorp, learns about life and love, and love and death, he engages in intellectual debate, develops from a na├»ve ingenue into someone of considerable intellect and, finally, realises it is time to leave the hermetic universe of the magic mountain and return to the brute realities of uncivilised civilisation.

Thus, the magic mountain, this idyllic retreat from reality, becomes a place in which Mann can explore his ideas. So what exactly is the world of Davos Platz? What does it represent? Thomas Mann has carefully constructed a parallel world in which ideas are played out as action, but not in the mundane (in both the earthbound and the commonplace senses of the word) ways we are used to in our real existence. Rather, the ideas and ideals investigated in the novel are exploded in a series of almost parodic, highly stylised, greatly exaggerated scenes. The duel between Settembrini and Naphta, for example, is the clash of totalitarianism and liberalism played as high farce; the suicide of the Dionysian Peeperkorn, meanwhile, is on the surface an extreme over-reaction to events, but it points to the imperative for such a character – a lover of life, a nurturer of the senses, a sensualist – to be enmeshed in, central to the affairs of life, which Peeperkorn, usurped in the affections of Mme Chauchat by Hans Castorp, could no longer claim. And so Mann presents us with ourselves in gaudy relief, all the better to see our faults, our foibles. How better to observe the fatuity of our actions than to see them through the distorting lens of caricature?

This, alone, would be enough to make The Magic Mountain an important novel, but it would be quite wrong to suggest that its greatness lies merely in the fact that it presents a caricatured mirror-image of 1920s civilisation: that would be a recipe for literary meaningfulness, but not greatness and, further, it would run the risk of didacticism. What makes this novel great is its central character, Hans Castorp, the ‘simple-minded but shrewd young hero’, as Mann describes him, and the serial dialectical interplays between him and those who presume to teach him – Settembrini, Naphta, Peeperkorn, Joachim, Mme Chauchat and Doctor Behrens. In this way, Mann weaves an extraordinarily complex fabric in which he can explore the inextricable interconnectedness of death and time, time and myth, myth and science, science and art, art and education, education and life, life and death. It builds into a portrait of a world of great beauty which, nonetheless, finds itself on the cusp of terror. A paean to humanism, it sends a strong warning to us all and suggests – only suggests – a means of salvation.

Hans Castorp is, initially at least, an everyman figure, identified by EW Tedlock as both modern man and Mann himself. He is described as ‘life’s delicate child’, a vision of humanity in its innocence, surrounded by death, somewhat in thrall to it, capable of artistic sentiment, of great learning and advancement, but also vulnerable to malevolent forces. When he arrives at the sanatorium he has just completed his studies as an engineer but is nonetheless a ‘simple soul’ who knows nothing of the world. As the novel progresses he begins, almost imperceptibly, to attain great knowledge and understanding. As Van Meter Ames suggests:

Hans Castorp's education begins when his training as an engineer is completed. He does send for some books on "scientific engineering, technique of ship-building, and the like," but neglects them for text-books in "anatomy, physiology, biology," and the question, "What was life?"

Nonetheless, Ames continues, in the early stages of the narrative, ‘[s]till [Hans] is not interested in the kind of problem that genuine research would tackle. He simply slides into dreams.’ Thus, he remains in the sanatorium for seven years, hermetically isolated, outside reality. It is only latterly, when his romantic attachment to death is shaken by his love of life, that he begins to apply his intellect to any useful purpose. By then he has consumed the learning provided by the pedagogical Settembrini, has appraised the philosophy of the Jesuit Naphta, understood love through both its loss (in the shape of Peeperkorn) and its discovery (through Mme Chauchat), and has finally become prepared to leave the sanatorium behind and re-enter the world below.

1. Hans Castorp and the magic mountain
2. Time
3. Death and nature
4. Science and myth
5. Rationalism and reaction
6. Approaches to Mann


Donigan said...

Okay, now I'm going to read it again. For what will be the 3rd time. With "A Man Without Qualities," the two great European novels of the 20th century.

mel u said...

I have just begun my first read of Magic Mountain-I will defer reading the rest of your six posts until I have completed it-thanks very much for your great introductory post