Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Magic Mountain (6): Approaches to Mann



6. Approaches to Mann

Mann is not much read these days, or at least he is not much in vogue. Partly, this is due to current tastes – his eclecticism, his repeated classical allusions, his – to use one of his own favourite words – pedagogy are now considered to be stilted. Also, our modern culture has a dislike of ambiguity: morals have to be clearly presented and unquestionable – think of the film Crash, for example, a good film with a good message, but one that is ultimately laboured to the point of triteness. And Mann, of course, does not ever give us certainty. His meanings are not easily extracted from the narrative and cannot easily be appropriated by the idle reader for one’s own. But also, I sense, there remains some residual doubt about Mann’s views, about the debate he certainly had with himself about rational humanism and reactionary forces, and the power of each to influence human destiny. As long ago as 1965 Georg Lukacs was calling him ‘the most violently debated figure of twentieth century German literature’ while Irving Stock also points to some of this ambivalence when he notes:

[The Magic Mountain] is thought by many to sink under its enormous freight of ideas; and, by those who don't disapprove of ideas in art, it is often considered unsatisfactory because Mann believes in none of them himself, his famous irony being at bottom nihilistic.


Such critics, Stock suggests, are missing the point: ‘As for the novel's meaning, what we find in Hans Castorp's education is that Mann's smile at all ideas doesn't mean "no"; it means "yes, but." [Mann] seems a nihilist only to those who look for ideas in which they can come to rest.’ So The Magic Mountain is not nihilistic, but is it apolitical? Sidney Bolkosky certainly thinks so: ‘[Mann’s] post-war work through The Magic Mountain – itself agonizingly irresolute, remarkably apolitical, and socially disengaged – remained introverted and unconcerned with problems outside the artist and his existence.’ This is overstating the case. Bolkosky goes on: ‘Most critics have argued that not until Nazism became a clear and present danger did he convert from the apolitical, aloof, detached man of mind to a morally engaged spokesman against sociopolitical ills in this his "first political literary work."’ There is a degree of truth in this, although being apolitical does not necessarily mean that Mann displays no political consciousness at all, something which Bolkosky concedes when he concludes that ‘[h]is writing reveals a political and social consciousness that predated the rise of Fascism.’ The truth of this is evident in The Magic Mountain, nowhere more so than when Naphta warns Settembrini that not all revolutions result in democracy. Within years of the completion of this novel, Hitler had come to power in Mann’s Germany and the revolution of Nazi totalitarianism had begun.

Yet still the suspicion lingers that Mann was unworldly, an intellectual occupying rarefied heights of consciousness and not truly connecting with everyday reality. Oskar Seidlin, for example, notes:

No matter how assiduously the critics and interpreters of Thomas Mann's works have made them the conveyors of ideological, political, or sociological problems and questions, no matter how seriously Mann himself took the responsibility of speaking out against the crimes and outrages of an inhuman regime, in the last analysis he considered art – his art – not as a vehicle to carry time-bound messages, but as the great comforter man invented to assuage his sufferings.


This is unfair. This is to trivialise both Mann’s message and the depth of his convictions. It is also, frankly, not the case. For example, early in The Magic Mountain, Mann writes:

A man lives not only in his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries. He may regard the general, impersonal foundations of his existence as definitely settled and taken for granted, and be as far from assuming a critical attitude toward them as our good Hans Castorp really was; yet it is quite conceivable that he may none the less be vaguely conscious of the deficiencies of his epoch and find them prejudicial to his own moral well-being.

This is presented to us through the authorial voice, not through the various mouthpieces for Mann’s dialectical debates; it is, in other words, Mann’s thought, presented directly to his reader. Is it, as Seidlin would no doubt contend, an example of Mann assuaging his suffering – the faults of the world being depicted in terms of one’s own wellbeing – or is it to suggest that the individual and society are inextricably connected? I would suggest the latter and, as such, it suggests in Mann a wider awareness than critics such as Seidlin would grant him. Mann debates the grand philosophical, metaphysical and political issues in his own way, using his own tools, the only tools a novelist could feasibly use – words. As Settembrini says to Naphta:

"You are silent... You do not love the Word, or you have it not, or you are chary with it to unfriendliness. The articulate world does not know where it is with you. My friend, that is perilous. Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictious word, preserves contact – it is silence which isolates.”


And Settembrini concludes, displaying a prescience that may owe more to his author than to himself: ‘The suspicion lies to hand that you will seek to break your silence with deeds.’ And so, in Germany, it came to pass. Of course, ever the dialectician, Mann also explores the opposite view, allowing Naphta to suggest:

“All educational organizations worthy of the name have always recognized what must be the ultimate and significant principle of pedagogy: namely the absolute mandate, the iron bond, discipline, sacrifice, the renunciation of the ego, the curbing of the personality.”


Perhaps this is what exasperates critics – Mann’s insistence on exploring all alternatives, his schoolmasterly tendency to analyse and discuss. But this is to simplify his work too much. Yes, indeed, Mann is scrupulous in presenting and debating opposing beliefs, but to say that he is guilty of equivocation is to overstate the case. It is perfectly clear what Mann thinks of Naphta, for example. And it is equally clear that the ideals of Settembrini are close to those of the author himself. But far from being naïve, Mann is calculatedly honest in his understanding of human nature. The battle between Settembrini and Naphta – between libertarianism and totalitarianism – is ultimately unwinnable. Piers Lewis, in his perceptive blog articles on The Magic Mountain, explains this point perfectly:

[Naphta’s suicide] dramatizes the great fact that the argument between liberal humanism and de Maistrian—or Marxist—totalitarianism (Settembrini and Naphta) has no rational outcome. This book provides no aid or comfort — none — to believers in Reason. There is no escape from the nightmares of history. History never proves anything. Hume was right: reason is and can only be the slave of the passions. That's why people and their states fight wars.


Mann’s view was that the twentieth century was falling into irrationality. Siegfried Marck notes that his work reflects the tension between demonism and humanism, while Tedlock suggests it is founded on a ‘dualism between reason and unreason in human life.’ Tedlock quotes, in evidence, from Mann’s essay on Schopenhauer:

The twentieth century has in its first third taken up a position of reaction against classic rationalism and intellectualism. It has surrendered to admiration of the unconscious, to a glorification of instinct, which it thinks is overdue to life. And the bad instincts have accordingly been enjoying a heyday. We have seen instead of pessimistic conviction deliberate malice. Intellectual recognition of bitter truth turns into hatred and contempt for mind itself.


This is as clear an explication of Mann’s thought as it is possible to find. He was an intellectual, and his observations of twentieth century developments were those of an intellectual, but to say that he was thus removed from the reality of this clash between reason and unreason is to do him a disservice. He saw it clearly, and it pained him. Hans, when he finally considers leaving the magic mountain, does so because:

he was frightened. It seemed to him ‘all this’ could come to no good, that a catastrophe was impending, that long-suffering nature would rebel, rise up in storm and whirlwind and break the great bond which held the world in thrall; snatch life beyond the ‘dead point’ and put an end to the ‘small potatoes’ in one terrible Last Day.


Even now, perhaps, Mann appears to affirm his doubters: what is Hans’s response to this thought? He ‘went on playing patience’. Equivocal to the last, then, one might say, but no, because he continues: ‘...and gazing into the eye of the demon, whose unbridled sway he foresaw would come to an end of horror.’

And so we have an author who sees the beauty in humanity, but sees also its weakness. “I have made a dream poem of humanity,” says Hans Castorp at one stage. And so, of course, has Thomas Mann, but he knows, too, that dreams can turn into nightmares, and that there is nothing we can do to prevent it.


1. Hans Castorp and the magic mountain
2. Time
3. Death and nature
4. Science and myth
5. Rationalism and reaction

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