Der Zauberberg

Thomas Mann
Painting - Wetterhorn by Ferdinand Hodler (1912)
Wetterhorn · Ferdinand Hodler ( 1912)
Oil on canvas · 65 x 89 cm ·Kunstmuseum Winterthur

“It is remarkable how a man cannot summarize his thoughts in even the most general sort of way without betraying himself completely, without putting his whole self into it, quite unawares, presenting as if in allegory the basic themes and problems of his life.”

The Sanatorium Berghof is a remote clinic hidden in the Swiss alps – a place where healthy people get sick, where wavering spirits that cross its boundaries are bound – years at a time, by means of a mighty spell, à l’horizontale. The protagonist, an impressionable youth named Hans Castorp, is drawn to and influenced by his three mentors and friends: Ludovico Settembrini (an Italian Freemason and intellectual humanist), Leo Naphta (a Jewish-Polish Jesuit and intellectual irrationalist), and Mynheer Peeperkorn (a sensual, tyrannical, non-intellectual “Eastern” buffoon).

“Can one narrate time – time as such, in and of itself? Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be. The story would go: “Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,” and on and on in the same vein. No one with any common sense could call that a narrative. It would be the same as if someone took the harebrained notion of holding a single note or chord for hours on end – and called it music. Because a single story is like music in that it fills time, “fills it up so nice and properly,” “divides it up,” so that there is “something to it,” “something going on” (…) Time is the element of narration, just as it is the element of life – is inextricably bound up with it, as bodies are in space.”

The Magic Mountain is face value a coming of age story, but one that is shrouded in ironic contradictions: A Bildungsroman whose protagonist is described as “simple-minded”, and yet, whose motivations and desires remain more obfuscated, blurred, and nuanced than those of all other characters; whose protagonist is not educated to become an independent member of society and conqueror of worlds, but instead banished to a remote retreat and eventually stumbles into the estranging, nameless horrors of World War I; whose protagonist is exposed to luminous intellectual debates between two equally fanatical mentors, but remains vague in his own convictions, and the fruits of this pedagogic guidance – if indeed any at all ripened – spoil.

“And for its part, what was life? Was it perhaps only an infectious disease of matter—just as the so-called spontaneous generation of matter was perhaps only an illness, a cancerous stimulation of the immaterial?”

Mann’s work recapitulates the decade before World War I: An era where the grinding, lingering, unstoppable wheels of time crushes its diseased, decadent, weary spirit – Zeitgeist. Reading this work is an experience reminiscent of a great, dreamlike journey back in time, and yet towards time, an understanding of and reckoning with time – anchoring there, where the traveller is able to meditate on matter and mortality, intellect and passion, freedom and responsibility, experience and expectations.

“The days began to fly now, and yet each one of them was stretched by renewed expectations and swollen with silent, private experiences. Yes, time is a puzzling thing, there is something about it that is hard to explain.”

Small sketch - Book Review - Der Zauberberg
© 2024 Camillo Visini