Friday, January 01, 2010

The Magic Mountain (4): Science and myth


It seems strangely appropriate that a review of The Magic Mountain should stretch over two calender years...


4. Science and myth

Nor is Mann wholly didactic. Naphta, the Jesuit, the reactionary foil to Settembrini’s liberal humanism, plays the key role of devil’s advocate in the novel, frequently besting Settembrini in argument through his sophistry and facility with words. He posits arguments of increasing radicalism and intolerance and, while Hans’s ultimate rejection of the man he dismisses as a ‘reactionary revolutionist’ would clearly suggest Mann’s own views, Naphta’s position in the novel also suggests a degree of ambivalence about the role and nature of science which was not uncommon among 1920s liberals. This was a time, of course, when Futurists were mapping a technological world in which progress seemed to come at the expense of soul, while Modernism was identifying a malaise at the core of society. And so, when Naphta talks of the subjectivity of modern science, it perhaps creates a note of discomfiture:

“My good sir, there is no such thing as pure knowledge. The validity of the Church’s teaching on the subject of science, which can be summed up in the phrase of Saint Augustine: Credo, ut intellegam: I believe, in order that I may understand, is absolutely incontrovertible. Faith is the vehicle of knowledge, intellect secondary. Your pure science is a myth. A belief, a given conception of the universe, an idea – in short, a will, is always in existence; which it is the task of the intellect to expound and demonstrate. It comes down every time to the quod erat demonstrandum."


While, ultimately, refusing to affirm St Augustine’s credo, Mann, a spiritual person, nonetheless believed that science and mythology were not mutually exclusive, and that a forced binary opposition of the two produced a false position. Thus, The Magic Mountain is suffused, too, with references to mythology, and it is perhaps this which guarantees its place as a work of genius. It ensures that we have no certainty, no didacticism. Anyone looking for answers will not find them in The Magic Mountain – not simple or simplistic answers, at any rate. Mann knows that the human experience is too complex for that. Thus, Settembrini, whom Mann describes as ‘sometimes a mouthpiece for the author’, nonetheless is not shown to be infallibly correct; science, while indeed an emblem of rationalistic progress, is also susceptible, ultimately, to being ‘perverted’ and ‘laden with death’; and meanwhile the power of mythology remains, for all science’s attempts to decode existence, an immoveable force in the spiritual life of humanity. As Herwig notes:

During this [twentieth] century science has come to be widely considered the dominant paradigm for understanding our world. But has it replaced myth altogether? On closer inspection there may be more continuity and similarity between the artistic and scientific world views than narrow-minded champions of either discipline will admit.


Herwig sees science and myth as different approaches to ontology, satisfying the complementary human needs, respectively, of knowledge and meaning, and suggests that Mann’s novels ‘are a good example of the reinterpretation of mythical perceptions by means of modern science because they display the continuing presence of affective powers such as awe, delight, or terror in our responses to the results of scientific progress’. Thus, for example, Hans Castorp sees the x-ray examinations, according to Herwig, ‘through mythicizing eyes’. He continues by suggesting that Mann is using the technique of “maskenhafter Realismus”, whereby realistic events or considerations contain also an ‘underlying allegorical level’. In this way, ‘[t]he author puts on a mask of outer scientific realism under which he then conjures up his innermost feelings of anxiety and hope.’

It is important, here, to remember the context of the time. Germany was undergoing a violent societal shift in the aftermath of the First World War and the rule of the Weimar republic which would result, within a decade, in the rise of the Nazi Party, founded on a spurious national mythos which tapped into the insecurities and anger and isolation of the German people. In that context, it is feasible to consider Mann’s attachment to myth as somewhat naïve. Indeed, speaking in 1936, three years into the Nazi reign, Mann suggested: ‘The myth is the legitimization of life; only through and in it does life find self-awareness, sanction, consecration.’ Hindsight allows us to feel uncomfortable with such an utterance at such a time, but Thomas Hollweck points out that Mann was keen to stress the difference between his interpretation of myth and that of contemporary thinkers, which he dismissed as the ‘barbaric myth’. Rather, Mann was interested in the role of Jungian archetypes in understanding the history of humanity and the consciousness of the individual. He saw myth as part of a dialectic with science, through which an understanding of the age might be reached. While it is possible to see as naïve Mann’s intellectual interest in mythology, at a time when it was being commanded into malign duty by the Nazis, it is also possible to see that he was remarkably prescient, that in his depiction of a cloistered world, oblivious of the dangers emerging in the ‘flatlands’ below, he gives the most vivid description possible of a Europe sleepwalking into disaster.

The binary oppositions of science and art, rationality and mythology, are key to understanding Mann’s approach in The Magic Mountain. As previously stated, he is not looking to reveal easy answers, and nor does he use his characters to preach his own particular message. Thus, while he does indeed suggest that Settembrini is sometimes his mouthpiece, he is ‘by no means the author himself.’ Nor is his pedagogy unfailingly wise. Rather, he is shown to be comic, ‘the chronic oppositionist, the windbag’ For Ludwig Lewisohn, Settembrini ‘represents the shallower aspects of the humanistic and libertarian tradition’. Although his views are to be respected, and clearly are representative, to an extent, of the author’s own, Mann nonetheless posits the dangers of such naïve thinking. As Lewisohn explains, Settembrini’s approach:

laid itself open, to our eternal misfortune, to those new doctrines of force and violence and blood and blind obedience which are common to both communism and fascism and are voiced in the novel by the terrible tongue of Naphta, the renegade.


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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