Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Magic Mountain (3): Death and nature

3. Death and nature

The concomitant of time, of course, is death, and death hangs heavily over The Magic Mountain. From the beginning, there is an aura of death surrounding Hans Castorp, from the early demises of his family to the gradual loss of those he loves in the sanatorium. Indeed he almost seems in thrall to death and, if not actually embracing it, then he certainly does not repel it. This is emphasised by his passivity, his acceptance of illness – particularly his own – and the sanguinity with which he accepts the various deaths of those around him in the course of the novel. Only Mme Chauchat seems to arouse any emotion in him. It is not exactly a death wish he has but nor, initially, does his attitude appear to represent any joy in living. All of this Mann achieves through creating an interior, subjective view of life, hermetically enclosed within the sanatorium, so that we are faced with layers of constriction – from Castorp’s passivity through to the dreamlike quality of the magic mountain itself.

For all that, this is not a morbid novel. Indeed, as Ames points out, Mann himself denied such accusations: ‘Against the charge that he used disease and death for romantic horror he maintained that he invoked them as "great teachers".’ Thus, while Hans is told by Dr Behrens that ‘living consists in dying’, and is therefore a seductive mistress, the pedagogue Settembrini is simultaneously teaching him of its dangers. Irvin Stock notes:

there have been moments when Settembrini…has opposed the bias toward death and affirmed the " bourgeois" emphasis on life in ways that seem to be spared his author's usual irony, and it was he to whom Hans Castorp—and the reader—listened with respect. "Death," he has said, "is worthy of homage as the cradle of life, the womb of polygenesis," but "severed from life," it exerts "a vicious attraction" for, he adds later, it "unlooses," it brings "deliverance," not "from evil... but ... by evil. It relaxes manners and morals, it frees man from discipline and restraint, it abandons him to lust". Our hero has to know from his own mountain experience that this is true. And though the novel is one long demonstration of the value for life of such "relaxation," it will now show itself as a warning against valuing it for its own sake, over life.

Mann gives his most explicit evidence of this when he suggests:

It is a fact that a man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own. Whether he realizes it or not, he illustrates the pertinence of the adage: So long as we are, death is not; and when death is present, we are not. In other words, between death and us there is no rapport.

Thus, through the course of the novel, Hans Castorp is reconciled to death in a way that is different from the almost romantic attachment he felt towards it at the beginning. As Mann explains:

even Hans Castorp, in the course of his experiences, overcomes his inborn attraction to death and arrives at an understanding of a humanity that does not, indeed, rationalistically ignore death, nor scorn the dark, mysterious side of life, but takes account of it, without letting it get control over his mind.

This is perhaps the key to the novel: appreciating the ways in which Castorp comes to this accommodation with death and reaches a mature approach to life is integral to understanding its complexities. The novel is a bildungsroman, and the learning journey we are taken on is that of Hans Castorp. From a callow youth, he becomes a wise and educated man, and his education comes in the form of science, art, mythology, philosophy and love.

Of these, a key element of the novel is its approach to science. Science is clearly fundamental to The Magic Mountain and, indeed, Malte Herwig notes: ‘A comparison of the novel with [identified] scientific sources shows that the author sometimes copied whole phrases and integrated them into the narrative.’ Greenberg also points to Mann’s understanding of Goethe’s scientific stance as being key to The Magic Mountain:

Thomas Mann frequently made reference in his diary to his preoccupation with Goethe in relation to The Magic Mountain. In an entry of 15 June 1921 he notes: "In the evening as I read Bielschowsky's chapter on Goethe as a scientist the meaning and the idea of The Magic Mountain became clear to me". The Magic Mountain is steeped in science to the end, I propose, of achieving a modern version of the Goethean ideal described above.

Goethe could be described as a Romantic scientist in that, for him, the study of nature was paramount and the pursuit of scientific discovery was a spiritual as much as a practical process: there is an interconnectedness of art and nature and science and learning that helps to define the truths and reality which shape our culture. Thus, Greenberg continues, ‘a central theme of The Magic Mountain is the relationship of science to art’. Ames, meanwhile, comments that ‘[Mann’s] art is under the aegis of science.’ He then continues: ‘To say that he made considerable use of science is not to say that his central theme is science, the guide of life. Yet it may not be amiss to say that also.’ This, then, clearly represents a humanist response to scientific progress, in that our everyday reality is shaped by a combination of scientific discovery and artistic beauty, as enunciated by Hans Castorp, for example, when he says:

". .. you can see how the things of the mind and the love of beauty come together, and that they always really have been one and the same – in other words, science and art.”

This is exemplified most fully in the extraordinary scene where Hans is examining the x-ray of his beloved Mme Chauchat:

It was a small negative... it revealed matter for a humanistic eye: the transparent reproduction of the human form, the bony framework of the ribs, the outline of the heart, the arch of the diaphragm, the bellows that were the lungs; together with the shoulder and upper-arm-bones, all shrouded in a dim and vaporous envelope of flesh – that flesh which once, in Carnival week, Hans Castorp had so madly tasted.

This, then, is human perfection: here, the beauty of the human body and the stirrings of love are rendered in stark scientific form – literally the flesh laid bare. Mann continues: ‘It hovered before his eyes – the image of the human form divine, the masterpiece of organic life.’ And yet, in beauty there is also death, for The Magic Mountain is steeped, too, in degeneration. And so, when contemplating the x-ray of his own hand, ‘for the first time in his life [Hans] understood that he would die’. Romanticism is never wholly romantic.

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

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