The Magic Mountain (1924) is a very long, extremely famous but rather puzzling novel that is supposed to say something profound about Europe before the First World War. I listened to the whole thing, enjoyed a lot of it, found the text and reread some of the parts that most interested or moved me. But I am still not at all sure what the profound thing is.
In 1912 Thomas Mann's wife spent a few months at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, and Mann visited her there. He wrote a short, comic novella about the experience but never revised or finished it. Then the war came. Mann was whipsawed by the war, first taking up a German nationalism so militant it puzzled his friends, then sliding into a depressed pacifism as the nightmare blundered toward its grim conclusion.
Mann pulled out the unpublished novella about Davos, reread it, and no longer found the jokes funny. But rather than throwing it away he decided that he had a chance to make it into something much bigger, something that would capture the mood of Europe in 1912, and shed light on what happened to drive the continent to slaughter.
The Magic Mountain is the story of Hans Castorp, a young man just out of the university, with a job waiting for him as an engineer at a Hamburg shipyard where his family has strong connections. He decides to take a break by making a two-week visit to his cousin, who has been at the sanatorium for several months. This way he will offer moral support to his cousin while resting his mind before he dives into his career. But he gets sick, turns out to have some TB himself, and settles in for a long stay.
The book begins with a sort of forward about storytelling. The narrator informs us that all real stories have to be set in a world different from our own. Davos in 1912 qualifies because, although it was not long ago, the cataclysm of world war separates it from the present. We remember that world, the narrator says, but we can hardly believe we lived in it.
Mann does a lot of work to create the sanatorium as a world apart. The patients have their own vocabulary, their little rituals, special skills like a certain way of wrapping yourself in blankets when you sit in your balcony lounge chair for the outdoor "rest cure," mandatory no matter the weather. Once people have gotten used to life "up above," it is implied over and over, they have a great deal of trouble returning to life "below," and many of them clearly have no desire to. Whatever they left behind – spouses, children, jobs –they are happy to leave it there. Up above they enter a social world with its own parties, outings, and affairs, given a special intimacy and charge because everyone may be dying.
Time, the narrator tells us, passes differently on the mountain. People hardly talk about days or weeks; a month is the smallest unit of time that signifies. This launches Mann into a fascinating reverie about time. He asks why it seems to pass at differing rates, how it is related to motion and change. He calls music "frozen time," and says that time is equally vital to stories, which must unfold in time, one thing after another. So one reason this is a famous book is that it has some real intellectual content. Which reminds me of a line from William James, "There is, it must be confessed, a curious fascination in hearing deep things talked about, even though neither we nor the disputants understand them."
Insofar as I understand the deeper point, it seems to be that the sanatorium represents Europe, and its occupants the European elite, sleep-walking their way toward Armageddon, paying no attention to events that seem far off and unimportant but turn out to be earth-shatteringly important. There is also a sense that life before the war was just so boring, so trivial, that it was hard to care about it at all, and that maybe compared to that ennui the war was at least real and vital. But as I said, I am not sure I understood.
So let me write about something I think I do understand. Not long after arriving, Hans Castorp meets an Italian named Settembrini, who becomes one of the key characters. Settembrini is a liberal rationalist who thinks the world needs more reason, more democracy, more freedom. He has just accepted a writing assignment, helping with an Encyclopedia of Human Suffering. The idea is to catalog all the different types of suffering, and then discuss the ways each might be ameliorated, applying learning and reason to the task of improving life in every way. He is a perfect caricature of people like that, the ones excited about the future of humanity under democracy, science and reason.
Later on we meet another character, Naphta, who turns out to be Settembrini's foil. Naphta is a bit of a cheat, in that he is both a Jesuit and a radical socialist, which allows him to attack liberalism from many directions. As a Jesuit he abhors its avoidance of final things, its refusal to take any stand on the ultimate questions of life and the universe. As a radical he pours scorn on on liberal politics, which he says really only mean the triumph of bourgeois capitalism. As for reason and democracy, the two are incompatible, since what democracy really gives you is the madness of nationalism. He is particularly trenchant on education. Settembrini, of course, is a fan of liberal education, and he looks forward to a future in which mechanics and loom setters will read and love the Iliad and the Aeneid. Naphta says that such "liberal" studies are only for the rich, who use them to separate themselves from the rest of humanity, and that actual workers have no interest in such things.
In reading these passages I felt very strongly that the politics of our time were already present in the exact same form in Mann's Europe, whether one takes that to be 1912 or 1924. Naphta does not have the word, but he is accusing Settembrini of Neoliberalism, a democratic cloak on a corrupt system that really benefits only the rich, and that is spiritually vacant at the core. It is simply not enough, not enough to fulfill us emotionally, and not enough to create real justice in the world. Settembrini responds that while revolution is sometimes a noble ideal, in practice it usually just means killing people, and that religious certainty is destructive of community, morals, and peace: whatever their limitations, reason and democracy are the only real hope for humanity.
I think Mann would perfectly understand the politics of our own time. And this realization gave me a strange sense that we are stuck with this world, and these arguments. At this level of civilization, they are inevitable. These are the issues of our time, and we, unable to resolve them, will just have to deal with them as best we can.
I was also struck by the realization that Mann's world, that he makes seem so much like our own, was about to fall into a fifty-year crisis of war, revolution, genocide, and sundry other sorts of mayhem. Since 1945 Europe has always stayed away from the brink, I suppose because everyone knows what crossing the line would mean. But give that we are, fundamentally, in the same situation, how much longer can we keep from falling into the abyss again?