Charles Petzold

Summer Reading: “The Magic Mountain”

July 23, 2006
Roscoe, NY

After writing a thousand page book in ten months, I felt like I deserved a relaxing rest cure at an old-fashioned European sanatorium, but instead I read Thomas Mann's 1924 novel The Magic Mountain (trans. John E. Woods, Vintage Books, 1995), which was probably not as relaxing as the real thing but definitely more illuminating.

The plot is simple: Hans Castorp, a young engineer about to begin work at a ship-building firm, visits his cousin at the Berghof Sanatorium in the mountains of Davos. He plans to stay for three weeks, but ends up remaining for seven years.

Berghof is the type of sanatorium where wellness is not easily acknowledged. With only a quick glance at a visitor's complexion, Director Behrens is likely to diagnose anemia; with a full examination with chest tapping and thumping, a “rattle” might be detected, and with an X-ray perhaps even a dreaded “moist spot.”

And so Hans succumbs to the seduction of perpetual illness, bonding with the international assemblage of patients in rituals of frequent meals, multiple daily temperature readings, and the special manner of folding oneself in blankets on the special lounge chairs devoted to the rest cure. Medical jargon becomes a part of daily conversation. (When suggested he wink at some minor transgressions, Director Behrens says “Of course I wink at the rest. I'm getting blepharospasmosis from all the winking I do.” – p. 492) Time itself seems to stretch and compress in ways that the “flatlanders” down below simply cannot understand.

Surely some of these people are really sick and some of them really do die from tuberculosis. But others seem to be afflicted more with the uncertainties of modernity. Hans gets an entire eduction from listening to the debates between Lodovico Settembrini, who initially appears to be a pompous bore but who emerges as a humanist and rationalist in the debates with Leo Naphta, who has developed a philosophy that can perhaps best be described as Jesuit Fascism, and whose heart remains firmly in the Middle Ages. “[I]t was in love's service,” Naphta says, “that machinery was set in motion by which the cloister cleansed the world of its wicked citizens. All ecclesiastical punishments, even death at the stake, even excommunication, were imposed to save souls from eternal damnation, which cannot be said of the mad extermination of the Jacobins. Allow me to remark, that every sort of torture, every bit of bloody justice, that does not arise from a belief in the next world is bestial nonsense.”

Towards the end of the novel, everybody starts getting testy and petulant. There are fights and even a duel, but the characters are only reflecting mounting tensions in the flatlands, and when a certain archduke is assassinated (p. 701), Hans tumbles from his refuge in the mountains to fight for Germany in the Great War.

In the last four pages, we glimpse Hans on the battlefield, charging, stumbling, getting up again, running, all the while with Schubert's “The Lime Tree” (from Winterreise) going through his head, a song about the seduction of death in the guise of sweet memory.