Taking the Cure: A Stay at 's "" Philip Bmntingham

THERE ARE THOSE who say that the human The subject of Shakespeare's play is race is infected by two sicknesses: the the spiritual malaise of one man. In Tho- sickness of the body and the sickness of mas Mann's 1924 novel, The Magic Moun- the spirit. In fact, both afflictions are po- tain, the subject, as so many critics have tentially fatal. The first sickness can be told us, is the malaise of an entire group traced to a number of causes: namely, an of people, indeed a generation. These outside intrusion (infection), or an inner critics—too numerous to mention—have failure (malfunction). The second sick- suggested that Mann's intent was to use ness comes solely from within: emotional illness as a metaphor for the condition of distress, deep anxiety, or that decline pre- European society. sometimes called failure of the will. A Such a theme would be an ambitious mixture of the two sicknesses sometimes one, to be sure. Novels normally do not happens; and it has been proven that the attempt to describe the decay of an entire sickness of the mind often can affect the society—how could they? Novels are not health of the body—and cause what is tracts or scientific reports, and whenever called psychosomatic illness. they attempt to become either of these In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the hero suf- things, such as we find in as 's fers from the second sickness, and it de- The Man Without Qualities (1930-43), they bilitates him so much that he contem- are no longer fiction but prose seminars. plates suicide. His sickness of spirit comes Within memory, only the Austrian nov- from inner torment: from being unable to elist has tried such take action "against the slings and arrows a task and succeeded: in his novel die of outrageous fortune," as he himself de- Daemonen, published in English as The scribes it. Demons (1961). In it, he presented It is only when Hamlet begins to act Viennese society seven years after the and to plot against his uncle, the usurper Great War. He was relatively successful in and regicide Claudius, that he finds a drawing a portrait of some members of modicum of relief from his torment. In- that society—but proved nothing about deed, once he engages in action, he be- the whole of Austrian society. There was, comes a new man. perhaps in the end, nothing to prove. (Sometimes the decadence of a society is PHILIP BRANTINGHAM is a graduate of the Univer- highly exaggerated.) sity of Chicago who works in the textbook pub- The danger in such fictional enterprises lishing industry. clearly lies, as mentioned, in the fact that


undertakings of this order usually fail as The setting was a sanatorium high in fiction. Novelists who launch their paper the Swiss Alps, where people suffering vessels on a voyage to Ultima Thule, that from lung disease came to be cured is, who try to draft a report to the world, through the application of rest and the are sure to run aground on the sand bar of latest surgical techniques. rhetoric. John Dos Passes tried a similar The atmosphere there was decadent project, in USA (1938); but he overloaded only in the matter of the self-destructive his ship with so many characters and behavior of some of its despairing pa- literary techniques that it had sunk long tients. There is no particular sense of the before it reached its third and final vol- end of an age. The novel in fact begins ume. I think of the old Jewish saying, "A some years before the opening shots of community is too heavy for one man to World War I. Indeed, the novel's last pages carry alone." describe its hero on the battlefield, hav- ing left the sanatorium to become a sol- I dier in the German army. The difference in the matter of Thomas Save for this historical afterlogue, it is Mann's novel, the telling difference, is hard indeed to place this story in any but that the community he chose to portray the modern age. It is, rather, more like an in The Magic Mountain—that of patients in allegory that concerns all those who be- a Swiss tuberculosis sanatorium—is re- come afflicted with a mortal illness and vealed chiefly through the behavior of its are forced to enter a medical institution. individual patients and not through the Where then, one might ask, is the timely medium of some committee report. analysis of prewar society, before the Mann's story is that of persons, and does "breaking of nations"? not pretend to describe an entire society. II It was not the first time that Mann had focussed his attention on a group of per- Published as it was, six years after the sons. He began his literary career with Great War's end, der Zauberberg was is- Buddenbrooks (1901), a novel about an sued in English under the title The Magic established merchant family of Lubeck, Mountain.' The title could as well have Germany. He presented, as the subtitle been "The Enchanted Mountain," since declares, the "Verfall einerFamilie, "that Zaubercan also be translated as "enchant- is, the decline of a family. He described ment"—even "sorcery." For over this small how the Buddenbrook dynasty, under cosmos of the clinic there does lie a kind the pressure of social events and their of sickly spell—very like the enchant- own growing ineptness, fell from the ment of that fabulous castle where Sleep- heights of political and financial superi- ing Beauty dreamed, waiting for her Prince ority to the depths of social decay. The Charming. story ends with the tragic death of its last The difference, of course, is that Mann's viable heir. long novel is no fairytale and there is no Eleven years later, after numerous short rescuer to save the heroine/hero. Few of stories, and a trivial romantic novel, Royal the characters in The Magic Mountain are Highness (1909), Mann returned to the spared the fate that befalls many seri- theme of VerfaWinthe 1912 novella, Death ously ill patients. in Venice. After this work, a little over The intent of the work, as Mann once twelve years passed before Mann pub- stated in a letter to his friend Felix Bertaux lished another novel, and this time in was "to revive the Bildungsro-man." But let 1924, six years after the end of the great us be a little skeptical regarding this state- world conflict. ment (and the others Mann made about


his novel, to be noted later). It is true that about to begin his professional career as the story has a hero, a young hero—but he an engineer and thinks that visiting his has already grown up and the only "edu- cousin will be a lark. He finds it not very cation" he receives is in the disappoint- much of a lark and actually ends up re- ments of love and the way men die. In fact, maining beyond the planned three his first lesson begins when he arrives at weeks—as a patient, for during his visit he the sanatorium, for he is lodged in a room develops symptoms of lung disease. just vacated by a resident who has passed Castorp is not only young but impres- on. sionable, and as he comes to know the But let us set the scene now. The stage patients in the sanatorium, it dawns on is the International Sanatorium Berghof, him that this is a world nothing like that located not far from Davos in the Swiss in the lowlands. Here, life is perpetually Alps. The time, as the novel begins, is overshadowed by death, and the spirit is about 1912—long before antibiotics be- often overwhelmed by anxiety over one's came the treatment of choice for tubercu- fate. He is a wide-eyed observer, and it losis. Indeed, in 1912 the usual treatment takes time for him to comprehend every- prescribed for tuberculosis patients was thing around him. During this time he falls a long period of rest—usually in a moun- in love, witnesses pitiful dramas among tain retreat. It was thought by the medical the patients, and learns how to endure establishment of the day that pure moun- tedium, which, as the narrator tells us, is tain air would do wonders for those with "an abnormal shortening of the time con- lung problems. Physicians then believed sequent upon monotony." that the air of the lowlands was "heavy" Yes, time. That is a major feature of the and "moist," and was bad for those with narrative of The Magic Mountain, and the "weak lungs." subject of several lectures by the narrator. In such institutions doctors were prone However, in addition, an important part to experiment with questionable surgi- of Hans Castorp's story is his falling in cal interventions, including collapsing love with a fellow patient, the Russian the diseased lung in order to let it "recu- Clavdia Chauchat—a hopeless love that perate" in a passive state. This helped in comes to no satisfying end. Hans's cousin certain cases, in others it hastened the Joachim, too, shows an attachment to a inevitable end. pretty patient. But it fails as well. The The mise en scene of the Alps possesses truth is, the fulfillment of love is a very an emotional power in itself. In the hands rare event in the fiction of Thomas Mann. of extravagant such as Balzac or As suggested, the novel is not a scien- Zola, the surroundings would have been tific portrait of the unfortunate victims of dealt with in either an exotic or sensa- a disease. It is an artistic canvas that has tional manner. But Thomas Mann employs many figures in the foreground. In the a bizarre combination of the eternal with background, there are shadings and high- the mortal. He shows us the mountains of lights—not of society, but nature. For the Alps with their icy grandeur and the along with time, the author is preoccu- perpetual change of seasons, regulated pied with the backdrop of the majestic by the eternal timetable of nature—and mountains. Time and the seasons pass— against this places his fragile, ailing pa- but human frailty seems inconsequential tients. in this setting. What of the hero of the story? He is a Though the world of the sanatorium blithe young man from Hamburg named seems ageless, there is a vague attempt to Hans Castorp, who comes to visit his ail- place a time limit on the story. In his ing cousin Joachim Ziemssen. Hans is preface, Mann writes that the story takes


place "in the old days, the days of the straining that for many it was ultimately world before the Great War, in the begin- fatal. One could even say that many of the ning of which so much began that has sanatoriums of that day were medical scarcely yet left off beginning." But once death factories. into the story, this vague gesture is lost in For this reason, it might be said, we can the general drama of life at the sanato- see in this situation a symbol of the cor- rium. ruption of prewar society, of a willingness by people to believe whatever they were Ill told—sometimes against common sense. This was not a new setting for Thomas To some extent, this is true. Patients Mann. Earlier in his career, he had written did indeed follow the advice of their phy- about life in a sanatorium. In 1912, his wife sicians—as today. Laymen then, as now, Katja had spent some time in a tuberculo- did not presume to know better than their sis sanatorium as a patient. Mann made doctors, and most of them obediently much use of this experience in a story he took their doctors' advice. (Most people called "Tristan." This was a melodrama in Europe also reasoned that, since rest at about the love of an intellectual patient a spa was commonly recommended for for a very impressionable married woman. poor health, why should not a sanato- The affair falls through, chiefly upon the rium be good for tuberculosis?) appearance of the woman's husband who The cure itself, as we learn in the novel, forces the intellectual to back off and was not without a regimen: this consisted retreat, completely humiliated. chiefly of taking regular rest periods out The relationship of "Tristan" to The in the open air, the patient protected by Magic Mountain is thin, chiefly because a heavy wrapping of blankets or furs. It is "Tristan" is of much slighter material. One hard to believe that this dangerous expo- could say it was a finger exercise for the sure to the alpine elements could in any later work. But both works could have way be considered as contributing to a existed one without the other—as it is, "cure"—and Mann notes that after each though, they are part of the same constel- rest, many of the patients' temperatures lation: Thomas Mann's galaxy of bedev- climbed higher. In fact, from today's view- iled and unfulfilled human beings. point the logic of this cure makes no Life in a sanatorium, of course, is not sense, and seems pure medical madness. like life in the outside world, for it is a It is like prescribing, in an even earlier era, clinical melting pot of society, where mercury for syphillis. human beings live under the threat of Hans Castorp sees all this, but he does losing their lives. Each patient wonders: not question it, for he has come only to Will I survive? In Mann's day, this was an visit his cousin and not to inspect the especially valid question, for despite the sanatorium. He is, as the narrator tells us many tuberculosis sanatoriums and the in the beginning, "an unassuming young abundance of "cures," the death rate for man" from Hamburg. An orphan, he has TB patients was high. graduated from engineering school and Regarding these alpine sanatoriums, is about to embark on a career in his science tells us that thin air requires more uncle's construction firm. His decision to effort in breathing than the air at lower visit his ailing cousin is purely a way of levels; thus, those who came to the alpine putting off his entrance into his profes- clinics and who were already seriously ill sional career. were, in many ways, going to their deaths. Young Castorp quickly learns some The "beneficial" rest in the rarefied atmo- unpleasant facts of life at the Berghof: his sphere of the high mountains proved so room is next to that of a Russian couple


who frenetically—and noisily—make Not merely do their philosophical dis- love each night. Another day, while walk- cussions interrupt the narrative, but they ing by a room in the hall he hears a man are extensive and wearying, keeping the coughing horribly, and it seems to him "as reader from the true matter at hand. Like if one could look right into him when he Tolstoy's philosophical interludes in War coughs," so gruesome is that sound. and Peace (1864-1869) these stretches of Hans comes to know the many differ- woolgathering are simply too lengthy and ent patients and their conditions. There too rhetorical. is the "gentleman rider," an upper-class To some critics the arguments elevate patient who maintains decorum while the novel to the realm of "the novel of dying of his disease. There are young ideas." No label is more fatal to the gen- patients who, despite their illnesses, flirt eral reader's interest. For the novel of shamelessly with each other like young ideas is not a novel of people or situa- people everywhere. Even Hans's cousin tions; it is really an attempt—as men- Joachim behaves like a lovesick boy, tioned at the beginning of this essay—to though being a military man by profes- turn a work of fiction into a debate. It is as sion, he pretends the opposite: that he if one entered a theater expecting to see does not care. Eyes forward! a dramatic performance, and found in- Now we have seen that the patient is stead a panel discussion. sick. But can we say at the same time that The Magic Mountain is thus weakened society is sick? Can one presume that the by this distraction; not through an effort illness of persons infected by a disease to portray society in the terms of a sana- reflects the illness of society? Surely, vic- torium, but through the failure to tell a tims of disease are victims in their own good story. To some extent, Thomas Mann right and do not represent any social keeps abandoning his story in order to malaise. pontificate over various topics, time, the This is plainly the message Mann sends of life in the modern world, as us in his portrayal of the poor souls on his well as the nature of the human organism. Enchanted Mountain. Nearly everyone is This is not helpful in the enjoyment of sick there, many are dying, and the young the story, and for the most part Mann's man who has come to visit soon finds novel succeeds only when he hews to the himself joining the ranks of the patients experiences of Hans Castorp and his life andlearningmorethanhe ever wanted to at the International Sanatorium Berghof. know about illness. But he learns nothing In his introduction to the novel, Mann about society's disease; only about how writes that Hans Castorp is a "simple- disease affects the spirit of individuals. minded though pleasing young man." In Hans Castorp stays awhile on the moun- fact, though, simple-minded as he may tain, and thanks to Mann's storytelling be, it is upon him that the entire fiction gift, we the readers remain confined as relies. So long as we follow his adven- well. We not only meet the patients in the tures, we are happy and interested. But sanatorium, but also learn their thoughts when the Castorpian saga stops and the about their afflictions. Sometimes we learn narrative slips backward into rhetorical too much. For, in a lamentable lapse, Mann nip-ups, the story simply begins to die, added to this cast of characters two quar- like a Berghof patient coughing up blood. relsome intellectuals: the Jesuitical This is almost fatal as the debates take Settembrini, and his opponent, the ratio- on an endless and tendentious character nalist Naphta. There is too much space and seem about to overwhelm the story. given to their debates, which do nothing Then, near the point where the entire but bring the story to a screeching halt. novel seems to have become moribund,


a new character is introduced: Mynheer Mann would have us believe. Peeperkorn, a representative of a new Mann once made yet another contra- kind of patient, the Dionysian. This in- dictory remark, to the Swiss critic Robert jects a restorative serum into the novel, Faesi, stating (in 1925) that perhaps his and blunts the attitudinizing of the phi- novel "is the only humorous novel of our losophers of the mountaintop—who at day," a bizarre comment, about as helpful times seem to interest the author more as his remark that the book was a "roman- than the story itself. For Peeperkorn is no tic" story. For if there is any humor in The philosophical debater: he is the god Pan. Magic Mountain, it is closely related to Peeperkorn is a wealthy Dutch sea cap- gallows humor. tain, a nervous imbiber of the cup of life. It must be clear by now that from this He cannot complete a sentence, and 's viewpoint Mann's novel has little speaks in jerky phrases. He keeps the to do with social criticism of the pre- liquor flowingforthosewho join his circle, World War I years—and prewar society; including Hans Castorp. He also is some- rather, it has a great deal to do with the what of a , for when he appears delineation of human frailty. Further, it at the sanatorium, it is with Clavdia seems that despite his often cavalier atti- Chauchat at his side. She, who earlier left tude towards his characters, Mann has the mountaintop, has returned as taken up the mission of imparting to the Peeperkorn's mistress. pathetic victims of lung disease on his With this turn of events, Mann returns Zauberberg a tragic sense of life. to storytelling—people begin to emerge Tragic in what sense? A reasonable from the interminable debates and au- question. In an essay called "On Myself," thorial philosophizings. And Hans Castorp Mann once claimed that his novel was "a resumes his passion for the soiled Rus- book of sympathy with death." But here sian dove. again, it seems we cannot take Mann at his Mann once wrote to the Austrian so- word. For it seems clear to me that the cialist Ernst Fischer, that both Death in writer is in fact acknowledging, in his Venice and The Magic Mountain were "ex- novel, the tragedy of man's fate: in this tremely romantic conceptions." Unfortu- special case, the fate of physical illness. nately, Mann tended to say a lot of contra- Let us also add at this point that the dictory things about his works in his let- purpose of sanatoriums, and hospitals as ters—and readers of The Magic Mountain well, was not to hasten mortality. After all, are unlikely to find anything very roman- life in such institutions was a battle- tic about this novel (or about Death in ground. Medicine was struggling against Venice, for that matter). Rather, there is a bacillus, courage struggling against cow- lot of grim reckoning. ardice, and spirit against circumstance. Peeperkorn and Frau Chauchat are not The purpose of the International Sanato- at all romantic characters. They strike rium Berghof was to heal and certainly one immediately as pathetic, lost souls. not to kill. The fate of its inmates was one The wealthy Peeperkorn ekes out his mis- of circumstance. erable existence by buying the friendship It is impossible, however, to believe of others, while Chauchat haughtily mis- that Mann was on the side of death; what treats the men who pursue her, in or der to he meant was merely that he was cogni- avoid making any real commitments. zant of that terrible struggle that went on In this we become aware once again of between men and disease, and he sympa- the air of death that permeates the thized with those who took part in it. His Berghof. We wonder: Are all relationships approach was to show this struggle as a in this enchanted kingdom doomed? So kind of of death.


Death is certainly not the hero of the noted bitterly that "I repeatedly hear the novel. Hans Castorp is the hero. (Mann most scathing judgments of it [ The Magic writes in his Foreword: "...It must needs be Mountain], mostly to the effect that it is borne in mind, in Hans Castorp's behalf, not a novel, not a creative work, but a that it is his story, and not every story product of intellect and criticism." Then, happens to everybody..."). And we need a few lines later, Mann makes the striking to remember that at the end of the novel comment that the novel's "purely narra- it is Castorp who is the last person we see. tive elements, I think, balance the ana- This is not to forget the motif of time. lytical qualities so that the whole remains The story unfolds in the years before the tenable as structure and work of art." outbreak of World War I. And Mann claims Thus, Mann believed that his novel that this is what gives the story its particu- was saved from the fate of being classi- lar flavor and importance. "Is not the fied as a sterile novel of ideas by its nar- pastness of the past the profounder, the rative art. Instinctively, one might say, completer, the more legendary, the more Mann knew that no novel could survive immediately before the present it takes purely as "a product of intellect and criti- place?" Yet the mulling over time and its cism." Instinctively, Mann created immor- influence on life and fiction—over which tal characters—who managed to over- Mann wastes many a paragraph—is in- ride the tedious pages in which Mann was trinsically a nonstarter. The novel does spinning wool about time and human not take place in a vacuum; it is a story destiny. with a beginning and an end. In fact, one could almost say that the Alfred Kazin once accused Mann of work succeeds despite the author's suffering from a "tiresome Olympian lapses, when he became uncertain as to irony." And one can heartily agree that, in its purpose and asked himself if it was to the case of The Magic Mountain, this kind be a romance, or a comedy, or a black of haughtiness is often evident and works comedy. against the seriousness of the story. For it George Steiner has noted the "meta- reminds us of the kind of Victorian novel- physical hauteur of Mann's stance" as a ist who addressed his audience as "Dear way or explaining the often grave and Reader," and was very superior in relating ponderous positions that the writer took his narrative. in his fictions. In such commentaries on Nevertheless, though The Magic Moun- Mann's often toffee-nosed treatment of tain has its flaws, it survives. There re- his characters (including, of course, to- mains a core of profoundly depicted emo- wards the "simple" Hans Castorp) critics tions: Hans's affection for his cousin such as Steiner have forgotten that in Joachim—who dies after returning from many of his important works Mann found his flight to the flatlands; Hans's pathetic himself perpetually torn between mak- love affair with Clavdia Chauchat, a truly ing them products "of intellect and criti- damned soul; and finally, the portrait of cism" and "works of art." Hofrat Behrens, a dedicated physician who So the lure of the novel of ideas was a originally came to the Berghof with his kind of siren call that Mann was con- stricken wife to find a cure for her, and stantly struggling to resist. Can we even remained after her death. He himself is not imagine that while writing The Magic in the best of health, and Mann comments: Mountain Mann repeatedly asked himself "He had settled down as one of the physi- what kind of a book he actually should be cians who are companions in suffering to writing? Should it debate the problems of the patients in their care...." society or should it simply follow Hans In a letter in 1930 to Andre Gide, Mann Castorp's footsteps down the long hall-


ways of the sanatorium? is certainly one of the most tragic aspects "The backbone of a novel has to be a of our human lives. To impart this con- story," E. M. Forster wrote in his Aspects of vincingly was Mann's great achievement. the Novel. And though this statement was For Mann's instinctive genius managed made in 1927, too late to be of any help to to show the tragic fate of the victims of Mann in his enchanted mountain, one lung disease. might note that it supplies us with the Thanks to his literary instinct, he was reason for the enduring success of Mann's able to overcome his innate yearning to long novel. become immured in tendentious and For the work, in spite of its longueurs, fruitless philosophizing. Instinct over- does bring home to the reader that tragic came the bewitchment that struck Mann sense of life I have mentioned—and this while visiting his Magic Mountain, and because Mann does not show his charac- enabled him to awake from the philo- ters as victims of society, of capitalism, sopher's dream of bedazzled and empty nor even of history, but of, as already chatter. noted, circumstance. For circumstance

1. The quotations used in this essay are from Helen Lowe-Porter's translation of The Magic Mountain.