Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain)

Delta Winds cover 2007Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain)

Nicholas C. Ridino

Why, when I could have spent my time out of doors a free man, would I have chosen instead to spend seven years in a Swiss sanatorium? Actually, it only took me two months to read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, and, lying in my driveway of a summer evening, I did not feel like a prisoner, but rather like one undergoing elective surgery. Safely distanced from pain, I lived a "horizontal life" on my splendid lounge chair.

The Magic Mountaininvolves young engineer Hans Castorp and begins with his trip from Hamburg, Germany, to Davos-Platz, Switzerland, to visit his cousin Joachim. The prostrate Joachim, on military leave at the International Sanatorium Berghof, lies abed, recuperating from bronchitis. Castorp initially plans a three-week visit but ends up staying seven years. After an unpleasant acclimatization process, he becomes slightly ill and, on the advice of the hospital director, extends his stay. The reader understands that medical necessity does not prompt Castorp's extended stay; instead, he succumbs to the hospital's lure: the hospital promises release from suffering, but when its patients' enchantment becomes an indifference to life, their suffering increases.

Situated in pre-World War I, The Magic Mountain's sanatorium more closely resembles a resort than an institution. In an institution, one cannot order beer or champagne with one's supper, as Castorp occasionally does, nor can one freely smoke Maria Mancini cigars or openly sift cognac into one's evening milk "to make it more palatable" (267).

The Magic Mountainincludes an array of Austrian, French, German, Italian, Polish and Russian characters, all of whom converge to form a microcosm of European society at the Berghof. The Italian humanist Lodovico Settembrini makes Castorp's acquaintance early in the novel. With his literary background and pedagogic disposition, Settembrini challenges Castorp to revise, or perhaps repeal, his realist's perspective of the world; consequently, Castorp abandons his engineering interests for intellectual ones.

Settembrini predicts that the longer Castorp stays on the mountain, the further estranged he will become from his world "down below," and begin to see that world in all its arrogance, inflexibility, and folly. Instead of returning to Germany and instituting change in his life, Castorp renounces and distances himself from his former home. Settembrini shrewdly notes the fatality of this paradox and urges his friend to leave the Berghof at once.

Settembrini also fears Castorp's infatuation with the lure of Eros, embodied in Madame Clavdia Chauchat, the feline woman of the "hyperborean cheekbones and . . . blue-gray-green epicanthic eyes" (Mann 75, 326). The slinking, sexy Russian woman reminds Castorp of his childhood friend Pribislav (pronounced "Pshibislav") Hippe. Interestingly, Mann chooses this Kirghiz lad as a source of transgender comparison, thus rooting Castorp's sexual tension in the homosexual. Supine beneath the pine-boughs of a stream-bordered glen, Castorp nurses a nosebleed, "transported to an earlier stage of life," when as a schoolboy he borrowed a pencil from Hippe, so intensely transported that his "lifeless body lay there on the bench beside the [stream], while the real Hans Castorp [moved] about in an earlier time" (117).

Abandoning his engineering texts, Castorp begins studying biology. Lying on the hospital balcony of a winter's eve (on a lounge chair so therapeutically comfortable he has termed it "splendid"), he fancies seeing his goddess Clavdia outlined among the stars, in all her wondrously complex anatomical beauty. Settembrini admonishes Castorp's ardor for Chauchat, equating the engineer's obsession with idolatry. But he quickly tires of Settembrini's pedagogic reprimands. The two part dismissively in a chapter called Walpurgis Night, an evening of Mardis Gras festivities at the Berghof. During this festival, Castorp, intoxicated from champagne, overcomes his anxiety and speaks to Chauchat.

During their conversation, melodrama and improbability abound. Mann intentionally italicizes such phrases as Castorp's "I have always loved you [Clavdia], for you are the 'intimate you' of my life, my dream, my destiny, my need, my eternal desire" to remind the reader to regard the character's colloquy skeptically (336). Moreover, the improbability of such familiarity and intimacy between two relative strangers casts doubt on Castorp's later acquisition of Chauchat's x-ray. Presumably, Chauchat gives Castorp this memento mori after sexual intercourse; but considering her romantic indifference to him, this bequeathment seems odd. Perhaps he steals the x-ray.

Despite these sketchy details, the next chronological peg-Chauchat's departure from the Berghof-remains certain. Herr Naphta, the Jesuit lecturer and absolutist, replaces Chauchat. Opposed to the bourgeoisie, empirical in philosophy, and a hater of mankind, Naphta finds beauty in sickness, respectability in torture, and holiness in the obscene. His spiritual views obviously exasperate Settembrini's humanistic sensibilities.

Fearing the effects of the absolutist's caustic nature on Castorp, Settembrini warns the engineer to limit his association with Naphta. During one of many debates between Settembrini and Naphta, the latter lets fly the following anti-humanistic remark: "You see," Naphta confides to Castorp, "what confuses the world is the incongruity between the swift flight of the mind and matter's vast clumsy slowness, its dogged persistence and inertia" (498). Settembrini does his best to defend the body against Naphta's spiritual assault, realizing he can shield Castorp from Naphta's subtle guile only so much.

Based on Naphta's above quotation, it seems that the decadence of the Berghof, and of its occupants, owes its origins to Naphta's decayed philosophy. If not for this reason, little else accounts for such factors as the hospital director's own melancholy and agitation, and the Berghof itself, an institution condoning alcohol and ribaldry, and thus contributing to its own dissolution. European ambition, then, becomes symptomatic of the Berghof's irrationality. Moreover, Mann's ironic and erratic persona generates a tremulousness serving as an undercurrent for his highly self-conscious novel, whose plot concerns itself more with trivialities than with progressive story-content. While serious, Settembrini and Naphta's debates do not advance the story; moreover, the debates' convoluted nature reduces them, at times, to trivialities. If a less conscientious reader passed over these debates, his understanding of the novel would not suffer. But one reads for the sake of reading, and with the expectation that devotion will yield personal fulfillment; skimming over material denies the reader the novel's richness, which comes to its satiety with the arrival of the elderly Dutchman Mynheer Pieter Peeperkorn.

Simultaneously robust and sparse, the powerful Peeperkorn prefers opulence, pleasure, and potent liquefied spirits. Peeperkorn embodies a modern Dionysus, or Bacchus. While not a god, Peeperkorn maintains a lifestyle resembling that of the Greco-Roman god of wine, fertility, and nature. Described a "Personality" by Castorp, the formidable Peeperkorn stands outside the arena wherein Settembrini and Naphta come to intellectual blows, the one championing Nature, the other, the Spirit. Mann describes Peeperkorn's presence as a "counterforce . . . of which [Peeperkorn] was surely not even aware, or aware to God only knew what extent, so that the issue [under debate] seemed to pale, to lose its critical importance, indeed . . . to take on the stamp of frivolity" (577). For, when the man of "Personality" intercedes in the debate between the warring humanist and absolutist, when with his realistic views he uses reason to silence Naphta's wit, and practical matters to befuddle Settembrini's eloquence, the antagonists can do nothing but "step back into the shadows . . . becoming insignificant"; whereupon "Peeperkorn grabbed the scepter-directed, decided, ordered, commanded, controlled" (581). But as a man of "Personality," Peeperkorn finds himself out of his element in intellectual forums; instead, he influences others. For instance, Peeperkorn's stature and might educes veneration from Castorp, who otherwise has reason to hate Peeperkorn, due to the latter's having arrived with Chauchat in tow.

Peeperkorn easily discerns Castorp and Chauchat's relationship. Instead of envying him, Peeperkorn prepares to offer Castorp the "satisfaction" that he presumes the engineer, having a former claim on Chauchat, desires. However, owing to Peeperkorn's infirmity, the men decide to forgo a gun duel. As a concession of goodwill, Peeperkorn allows Castorp the use of formal pronouns when addressing him, a privilege for which, ordinarily, Castorp would have groveled on the ground. But before Castorp gets much use out of calling Peeperkorn by his first name-Does Peeperkorn leave the Berghof? Or does he succumb to the malignant tropical fever that necessitated his stay, becoming the next cadaver "bobsledded" down the mountain? Well, the reader will just have to content himself with not knowing for the moment (as I had to), and to bear Mann's sarcastic admonishment with as much equanimity as possible: "But why this impatience? Not everything can be known right off" (565). Howsoever the great man "departs," his "departure" climaxes with Castorp kissing Chauchat on the brow.

Although the titan falls, life continues at the Berghof. Chauchat re-departs (whither we do not know), and Director Behrens hypothesizes about Castorp's case. Just by looking at the young engineer, Behrens observes his patient's pronounced listlessness. Castorp sees life deprived of care, without the semblance of hope, a life filled with depravity, in short, a life offering death attractively packaged as complacency (619). But Castorp cannot evade blame. Although the Berghof provides its patients a responsibility-free life, the "stupor" into which Castorp falls remains his own fault. By shielding himself from the world, Castorp wraps himself in a hermetic existence where nothing ever changes, and in whose insensate embrace he can privately admit: "It was depravity with the best of consciences, the idealized apotheosis of a total refusal to obey Western demands for an active life" (637).

Consequences await Castorp, consequences darkly intimating themselves in a mental activity he calls "playing king," a childish term borrowed from his schoolyard days, when "borrowing a pencil" from Hippe did not entail the sexual implications that the same request of Clavdia later does. While reaching for love with his mind, Castorp reaches for death with his body. Seizing hold of the homo dei (or "human god") represents the highest aim of "playing king." Hovering somewhere between the terrestrial and mystical realms (symbolized, respectively, in Settembrini and Naphta's ideals), the homo dei awaits Castorp. Even if he does not realize the futility of his aim, the reader at length does. The reader also witnesses how Settembrini and Naphta, as well as their ideals, perish without a social "nutrient" off of which to feed.

In an outburst of pestilence and exasperation, Settembrini accuses Naphta of "molesting vulnerable youth . . . with [his] dubious ideas"-an accusation Naphta cannot tolerate without exacting reparations: namely, Settembrini's life (686). As the neutral party, Castorp implores Settembrini to reject Naphta's demand, citing Settembrini's slander as metaphorical at the very worst. But Settembrini somehow finds a theoretical platform upon which to place personal and metaphorical slander side by side. Thus, human progress compels him to accept Naphta's challenge. And the victor of their gun duel? Surely, the reader does not wish me to ruin his potential reading experience by divulging pertinent facts.

Like a thunderbolt, the violence erupting between Settembrini and Naphta portends that erupting from the outside world. From the first page, we have approached the events announcing World War I. Only, in our delusion, we fostered dreams of fallacious continuance. Mann allots no more space to these events than he allots any of the novel's other significant events, even though the events themselves brought work on his novel to a standstill. For Mann, substantiality lay in the trivialities of life. Examining these trivialities means expanding one's knowledge of life's processes, so that instead of becoming redundant, the trivialities become instructive.

With its soliloquy-like arias, literary leitmotifs, and contrapuntal symbolic-realism, The Magic Mountain reads like an opera. Although jagged as the crags of the mountain in some parts, the novel reaches a tonal beauty comparable to that of Carmen, a work very dear to Hans, and for whom the harmony of love, beauty, and death become discordantly entwined.

Reluctantly I folded up my lounge chair, ending my treatment at the Berghof. For a while, I feared I knew Hans a little too well, had, like him, enjoyed "playing king" a little too much. Like him, I rose to omnipotence only to descend to insignificance. Maybe, as Mann prays at the novel's end, I and the rest of humanity can survive in both the spirit and the flesh, and that our dreams of love will someday arise from life, not death.

Work Cited

Mann, Thomas. The Magic Mountain. Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Random, 1995.