Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Magic Mountain (5): Rationalism and reaction



5. Rationalism and reaction

We can see that, as well as the binary oppositions outlined above, Mann explores his ideas in The Magic Mountain through the opposition of dialectically opposed characters. As well as Settembrini and Naphta, Johannes Gaertner identifies a series of dialectically bracketed characters, who:

do not live so much by themselves as in contrast to and in confrontation with their partner or partners: Hans Castorp and Joachim Ziemssen, Naphta and Settembrini, Hofrat Behrens and Dr. Krokowski, Clawdia and Hans Castorp, Clawdia and Peeperkorn, Joachim and Marusja, and so on. Until the very end of the story all persons define themselves or are defined by others.


Similarly, there is a clear dialectical difference between the mountain world of the sanatorium and ‘down there’ in the ‘flatlands’. This difference can be explained in a number of ways: thought versus action, mental and physical wellbeing, peace and unrest, civility and misrule and so on, but, most significantly, it is a representation of the forces of civilisation and the forces of barbarity. These are marshalled by their respective lieutenants, Settembrini and Naphta, each with their particular views on post-Enlightenment western society. For Naphta, ‘in the past five hundred years, the principle of freedom has outlived its usefulness’, and what the current age demands – and, Naphta predicts, what it will create – is ‘terror’. Settembrini, meanwhile, knows that only through the power of enlightenment can man advance:

Two principles, according to the Settembrinian cosmogony, were in perpetual conflict for possession of the world: force and justice, tyranny and freedom, superstition and knowledge; the law of permanence and the law of change, of ceaseless fermentation issuing in progress. One might call the first the Asiatic, the second the European principle; for Europe was the theatre of rebellion, the sphere of intellectual discrimination and transforming activity, whereas the East embodied the conception of quiescence and immobility.

Settembrini is allowed to be dogmatic, and for him there is no doubt that the powers of enlightenment and rationality will triumph. Mann, of course, was not so certain, and thus it is that he confronts the idealist humanist Settembrini with the bringer of terror, Naphta. What Mann has portrayed in this exchange is, in less rabid and narrowly jingoistic form, the clash of civilisations theory propounded by American neocons in the aftermath of 9/11. It is as though the ideas of Samuel P. Huntington were being reframed and made logical by cosmopolitanist Martha Nussbaum. Mann knew, however, how seductive the voices of such Cassandras can sound, and Naphta is convincingly portrayed as an erudite and persuasive speaker. He knew, too, that Settembrini, the idealist, the intellectual was ill-matched against him. In the end, their intellectual arrogance cancels each other out. As Gaertner explains:

both are intelligent, but both are also a bit inhuman, vain, conceited, quarrelsome, and occasionally ludicrous... The dialectical process can go on through all eternity, as it symbolically does in the unresolved conversations between Naphta and Settembrini.


Unresolved, perhaps - certainly so since the only way they can end it is through Naphta’s suicide in the duel - but Mann is no starry-eyed optimist, and Naphta is his warning to us all. Again, Mann’s prescience is clear: the terror that Naphta predicted came to pass in Mann's own home country within a decade of the novel’s publication. His is a voice of humanist caution in a dangerous world.

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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